Updated This story was updated about 11 hours after it was published to reflect that Fedora developers have reversed course. Operating system users once again will be required to enter a root password before installing software packages.
Fedora users are revolting against a change introduced in the latest version of the operating system that allows the installation of thousands of software titles without an administrative password.
Critics say the move diminishes the security of machines running the open-source OS by giving unprivileged users what amounts to administrative control. That could allow lower-level employees to install software that's not been approved by administrators, or worse, to gain root access by installing an application with a known security vulnerability and then intentionally exploiting it.
The change, which was introduced in the recently released Fedora 12, has come under searing fire since it was disclosed in a user post on the OS discussion list. Critics argue it violates a core tenet of Unix, on which the Linux distribution is based, and that in any event, the old system worked just fine.
"Unix has always worked on a zero-assumption-of-trust model," said Michael Graham, a security administrator at a company he asked not be named. "You have only those privileges that are specifically given to you. By making this change without notifying people until somebody noticed, they extended the trust model system wide."
The change allows desktop users to install signed software packages through a graphical user interface without having to enter a root password first. Up until now, such software, which includes thousands of applications, including FTP servers, desktop elements, and sundry daemons, could only be installed after a user provided root authentication. The change doesn't affect Fedora 12's "yum" command line.
Fedora developers participating in the online discussion have so far defended their action. The GUI only allows unprivileged users to install signed packages from the Fedora library. Unsigned content still requires root access. Fedora is largely used as a desktop OS, they argued, where multiple accounts aren't used as often.
"Should the defaults be targeted towards home users or corporate desktop considering the short lifecycle of Fedora and the target audience?" one developer countered. "I am not sure there are corporate deployments but wouldn't they be heavily customiz[ing] their desktop deployments and kickstarting [them] anyway?"
The question prompted a response from a user with an email address from Red Hat, the commercial organizational behind Fedora, who replied: "For better of worse even desktop Linux is a multi-user system and this default is just crap and totally unnecessary given the previous version allowed you to allow a user forever explicitly and without hassles. I would almost consider it a security vulnerability and ask for a CVE to be issued."
The developers also note that the new default behavior of Fedora 12 can be changed by following the steps listed here.
Although Fedora is mostly known as a desktop OS, it's not unheard of for enterprises to use it to run servers. That's always been a questionable practice, but given the implications of Fedora 12's new feature, the security implications have never been higher. ®
According to this post, the change has been reversed. It reads:
"After more discussion and thought, though, the package maintainers have posted to the fedora-devel-list mailing list agreeing to provide an update to Fedora 12's PackageKit. The update will require local console users to enter the root password to install new software packages."