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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Classic Hack





Back in the mid-1970s, several of the system support staff at Motorola discovered a relatively simple way to crack system security on the Xerox CP-V time sharing system. Through a simple programming strategy, it was possible for a user program to trick the system into running a portion of the program in `master mode' (supervisor state), in which memory protection does not apply. The program could then poke a large value into its `privilege level' byte (normally write-protected) and could then proceed to bypass all levels of security within the file-management system, patch the system monitor, and do numerous other interesting things. In short, the barn door was wide open.

Motorola quite properly reported this problem to Xerox via an official `level 1 SIDR' (a bug report with an intended urgency of `needs to be fixed yesterday'). Because the text of each SIDR was entered into a database that could be viewed by quite a number of people, Motorola followed the approved procedure: they simply reported the problem as `Security SIDR', and attached all of the necessary documentation, ways-to-reproduce, etc.

The CP-V people at Xerox sat on their thumbs; they either didn't realize the severity of the problem, or didn't assign the necessary operating-system-staff resources to develop and distribute an official patch.


Months passed. The Motorola guys pestered their Xerox field-support rep, to no avail. Finally they decided to take direct action, to demonstrate to Xerox management just how easily the system could be cracked and just how thoroughly the security safeguards could be subverted.

They dug around in the operating-system listings and devised a thoroughly devilish set of patches. These patches were then incorporated into a pair of programs called `Robin Hood' and `Friar Tuck'. Robin Hood and Friar Tuck were designed to run as `ghost jobs' (daemons, in UNIX terminology); they would use the existing loophole to subvert system security, install the necessary patches, and then keep an eye on one another's statuses in order to keep the system operator (in effect, the super user) from aborting them.

One fine day, the system operator on the main CP-V software development system in El Segundo was surprised by a number of unusual phenomena. These included the following:

* Tape drives would rewind and dismount their tapes in the middle of a job. * Disk drives would seek back and forth so rapidly that they would attempt to walk across the floor. * The card-punch output device would occasionally start up of itself and punch a lace card. These would usually jam in the punch. * The console would print snide and insulting messages from Robin Hood to Friar Tuck, or vice versa. * The Xerox card reader had two output stackers; it could be instructed to stack into A, stack into B, or stack into A (unless a card was unreadable, in which case the bad card was placed into stacker B). One of the patches installed by the ghosts added some code to the card-reader driver... after reading a card; it would flip over to the opposite stacker. As a result, card decks would divide themselves in half when they were read, leaving the operator to re collate them manually.

Naturally, the operator called in the operating-system developers. They found the bandit ghost jobs running, and X'ed them... and were once again surprised. When Robin Hood was X'ed, the following sequence of events took place:

!X id1

id1: Friar Tuck... I am under attack! Pray save me! id1: Off (aborted)

id2: Fear not, friend Robin! I shall rout the Sheriff of Nottingham's men!

id1: Thank you, my good fellow!

Each ghost-job would detect the fact that the other had been killed, and would start a new copy of the recently slain program within a few milliseconds. The only way to kill both ghosts was to kill them simultaneously (very difficult) or to deliberately crash the system.

Finally, the system programmers did the latter --- only to find that the bandits appeared once again when the system rebooted! It turned out that these two programs had patched the boot-time OS image (the kernel file, in UNIX terms) and had added themselves to the list of programs that were to be started at boot time.

The Robin Hood and Friar Tuck ghosts were finally eradicated when the system staff rebooted the system from a clean boot-tape and reinstalled the monitor. Not long thereafter, Xerox released a patch for this problem.

It is alleged that Xerox filed a complaint with Motorola's management about the merry-prankster actions of the two employees in question. It is not recorded that any serious disciplinary action was taken against either of them. JokeJam

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