China has irked US wireless manufacturers by insisting that they conform to the PRC's encryption technology, we reported last week. Some commentators have castigated China for protecting its own fledgling tech industry. But that excludes the country's very understandable security concerns.
A reminder of how important these are came last week with a revelation from the Cold War era, contained in a new book by a senior US national security official. Thomas Reed's At The Abyss recounts how the United States exported control software that included a Trojan Horse, and used the software to detonate the Trans-Siberian gas pipeline in 1982. The Trojan ran a test on the pipeline that doubled the usual pressure, causing the explosion. Reed was Reagan's special assistant for National Security Policy at the time; he had also served as Secretary of the Air Force from 1966 to 1977 and was a former nuclear physicist at the Lawrence Livermore laboratory in California. The software subterfuge was so secret that Reed didn't know about it until he began researching the book, 20 years later.
The scheme to plant bugs in Soviet software was masterminded by Gus Weiss, who at the time was on the National Security Council and who died last year. Soviet agents had been so keen to acquire US technology, they didn't question its provenance.
"[CIA Director] Bill Casey at Weiss at the NSC decided to help the Russians with their shopping. Every piece of sw would have an added ingredient," said Reed to NPR's Terry Gross last week.
The software sabotage had two effects, explains Reed. The first was economic. By creating an explosion with the power of a three kiloton nuclear weapon, the US disrupted supplies of gas and consequential foreign currency earnings. But the project also had important psychological advantages in the battle between the two superpowers.
"By implication, every cell of the Soviet leviathan might be infected," he writes. "They had no way of knowing which equipment was sound, which was bogus. All was suspect, which was the intended endgame for the entire operation."
Tools you can trust
The two great trading powers, China and the USA, are not currently engaged in a Cold War. But does that mean that the Cold War lessons are invalid?
Closed source software vendors such as Oracle and Microsoft hardly need to be reminded of the delicacy of the subject. A year ago the PRC signed up for Microsoft's Government Security Program, which gives it what Redmond describes as "controlled access" to Windows source code. But the Windows source itself doesn't guarantee that versions of Windows will be free of Trojans. Governments need access to the toolchain - to the compilers and linkers used to generate the code - as that's where Trojans can be introduced. Without tools source, licensees are faced with the prospect of tracing billions of possible execution paths, a near impossible task.
Until the closed source vendors open up the toolchain, and use that toolchain for verifiable builds, this is one area where software libre will have a lasting advantage.
[Update: And even that isn't enough as we explain here]®