As usual, I’m a month late, the big Bash bug known as Shellshock has come and gone, and the world was confused as to why this ever happened in the first place. It’s been fixed for a few weeks now. The questions have started: Why has nobody spotted this earlier? Can we can prevent it? Are the maintainers overworked and underfunded? Should we donate to the FSF? Should we switch to another shell by default? Can we ever trust bash again?
During the whole thing, there’s a big piece of evidence that I didn’t see anybody point out. And I think it helps answer all of these questions. So here it is.
I present to you the upstream git log for bash: http://git.savannah.gnu.org/cgit/bash.git/log/
Every programmer who has just clicked that link is now filled with disgust and disappointment.
It’s all crystal clear now: Nobody would have spotted this earlier. No, we can’t really prevent it. No, the maintainers aren’t overworked and underfunded. No, we shouldn’t donate to the FSF. Perhaps we should switch to another shell. No, we cannot trust bash. Not until a serious change in its management comes along.
For those of you who aren’t programmers, you might be staring at that page, not quite understanding what it all means. And that’s OK. Let me help explain it to you.
There’s a saying in the open-source development community: “With enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. I don’t believe in it as strongly as I used to, but I think there’s some truth to it. It can be found in other disciplines as well: in science, it’s known as “peer-review”, where all papers and discoveries should be rigorously double-checked by peers to make sure you didn’t make any mistakes. In other sorts of writing, the person reviewing it is the editor. Basically, “have somebody else double-check your work”.
The issue with this, though, is that you need enough eyeballs to double-check your work. And while it was assumed before that all open-source software had enough eyeballs, that doesn’t seem to be the case. That said, you can certainly design and maintain a software project in certain ways to attract enough eyeballs. And unfortunately, bash isn’t doing these things.
First of all, you can see that there’s zero eyeballs on the code: one person, Chet Ramey, is writing the code, and nobody double-checks it. Because there’s only one developer, we might assume that there’s no big motivation to do code cleanups or try to make it accessible to anybody other than Chet, since nobody is working on it. And that’s true. This makes the eyeballs wander elsewhere.
But, in fact, that isn’t even true: Florian Weimer of the Red Hat Security Team has developed multiple fixes for the Shellshock bug, but his work was included in bash uncredited. Developers really need to be credited for their work. This makes the eyeballs wander elsewhere.
The code isn’t really that actively developed. Down the bottom of that page, we see dates and times that are from 2012. It seems like nobody actually cares about this code anymore, and nobody is really trying to fix bugs and make it modern. This makes the eyeballs wander elsewhere.
There are no detailed descriptions of what changed between versions, and Which commits in that log are ones that are serious and fixed CVEs, and which might just fix minor documentation bugs? It’s impossible to tell. This makes the eyeballs wander elsewhere.
And even with the corresponding code change, it can be difficult to tell whether a specific commit is an important security fix, a new feature, or a minor bug fix. There’s no explanation in the commit message for why this change was mode. or any sort of changelog, which makes it hard for people redistributing and patching bash to know what fixes are important, and which aren’t. The eyeballs will wander elsewhere.
In comparison, look at the commit log for the Linux kernel. There’s a large number of different people contributing, and all of them explain what changes they make and why they’re making them. To use a recent example (at the time of this writing), this NFS change describes in perfect detail why the change was made (for compatibility with Solaris hosts), and includes a link to a bug report with further information from debugging. As a result, even though bash is more commonly used and included in more things than the Linux kernel itself, the Linux kernel has more eyeballs and more developers.
So, what should we do? How should we fix this situation? I don’t really know. Moving to a new shell isn’t really a solution, and neither is a fork of bash. The best case scenario would be for bash to indeed change its development practices to be more like the Linux kernel, and adopt a thriving community of its own. I don’t have enough power or motivation to enact such a change. I can only hope that I can convince enough people of the right way to maintain a project.
Perhaps, Chet, if you’re out there, do you want to talk about it? This is a discussion we really should be having about the future of your project, and your responsibilities.