OpenBSD back door claim now in doubt

Named individuals deny all knowledge

The claim that the FBI planted a backdoor in OpenBSD a decade ago has been flatly denied by developer protagonists named as having been involved in the conspiracy in an email sent to OpenBSD founder, Theo de Raadt.

Sent by former NETSEC CEO and contractor Gregory Perry, the contentious email named senior OpenBSD developer Jason Wright as having been responsible for inserting the backdoors into the IPSEC encryption implementation in the operating system.

Wright has now angrily denied the claim in a public response, stating, "Every urban legend is made more real by the inclusion of real names, dates, and times. Gregory Perry's email falls into this category."

"I will state clearly that I did not add backdoors to the OpenBSD operating system or the OpenBSD crypto framework (OCF). It is a baseless accusation the reason for which I cannot understand," he added.

Confusion surrounds a second developer, Scott Lowe, mentioned by Perry in the email as having been involved in advocating the use of the compromised OpenBSD to suit the FBI's alleged ends.

It seems that this individual is proving hard to track down, and the two candidates traced by one journalist as being the named individuals have never had any involvement with OpenBSD or the FBI.

In an email sent in the last day to IDG News service journalist Robert McMillan, Perry appears to stand by his original claims without clearing up the confusion over the named conspirators. The reason for the email was that a 10-year non-disclosure agreement had recently expired, Perry said.

What the security world is left with is a plausible claim unambiguously denied by one participant, with the identity of a second named participant still uncertain.

The plausibility of the claim rests mainly on the documented fascination that the authorities in the decade leading up to the alleged OpenBSD insertion that it was necessary to 'trap door' encryption technology on the basis that not doing so would eventually stymie official intelligence gathering.

Examples of this range from the legal pursuit of PGP developer Phil Zimmermann for democratising encryption technology still governed by strict US arms export controls. The same period also saw the ill-starred Clipper Chip proposal to insert an escrowed encryption into every security device that would allow government access in certain circumstances.

More recently, a Wired article by Bruce Schneier raised the possibility that the NSA had inserted a back door into one of the officially-sanctioned random number generators (RNGs) used to create encryption keys.

Some will choose to believe Perry's general claim while suspecting that he has incorrectly identified the individuals involved. Others will simply dismiss them altogether. The problem for OpenBSD is that encryption systems are unusually sensitive to theoretical hacks, the mere possibility that something might contain security weaknesses. Unless clear evidence emerges to contradict the claims, the back door allegation will continue to hang over OpenBSD for some time.

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John E Dunn

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