Gnome 3 compare to MacOs

An assertion I have made in the past is that to me “Gnome 3 feels like MacOs with rough edges”. After some discussions with others, I’m finally going to write this up with examples.

It’s worth pointing out that in my opinion, Gnome 3 is probably still the best desktop experience on Linux today for a variety of reasons - it’s just that for me, these rough edges really take away from that being a good experience for me.

High Level Structure Comparison

Here’s a pair of screenshots of MacOS 11.5.2 and Gnome 40.4. In both we have the settings menu open of the respective environment. Both are set to the resolution of 1680x1050, with the Mac using scaling from retina (2880x1800) to this size.

../../../_images/gnome-settings-1.png ../../../_images/macos-settings-1.png

From this view, we can already make some observations. Both of these have a really similar structure which when we look at appears like this:


The skeleton overall looks really similar, if not identical. We have a top bar that provides a system tray and status and a system context in the top left, as well as application context.

Now we can look at some of the details of each of the platforms at a high level from this skeleton.

We can see on the Mac that the “top menu bar” takes 2.6% of our vertical screen real-estate. Our system context is provided by the small Apple logo in the top left that opens to a menu of various platform options.

Next to that, we can see that our system preferences uses that top menu bar to provide our application context menus like edit, view, window and help. Further, on the right side of this we have a series of icons for our system - some of these from third party applications like nextcloud, and others coming from macos showing our backup status, keyboard, audio, battery, wifi time and more. This is using the space at the top of our screen really effectively, it doesn’t feel wasted, and adds context to what we are doing.

If we now look at Gnome we can see a different view. Our menu bar takes 3.5% of our vertical screen realestate, and the dark colour already feels like it is “dominating” visually. In that we have very little effective horizontal space use. The activities button (system context) takes us to our overview screen, and selecting the “settings” item which is our current application has no response or menu displayed.

The system tray doesn’t allow 3rd party applications, and the overview only shows our network and audio status and our clock (battery may be displayed on a laptop). To find more context about our system requires interaction with the single component at the top right, limiting our ability to interact with a specific element (network, audio etc) or understand our systems state quickly.

Already we can start to see some differences here.

  • UI elements in MacOS are smaller and consume less screen space.
  • Large amounts of non-functional dead space in Gnome
  • Elements are visually more apparently and able to be seen at a high level, where Gnome’s require interaction to find details

System Preferences vs Settings

Let’s compare the system preferences and Settings now. These are still similar, but not as close as our overall skeleton and this is where we start to see more about the different approaches to design in each.

The MacOS system preferences has all of it’s top level options displayed in a grid, with an easily accesible search function and forward and back navigation aides. This make it easy to find the relevant area that is required, and everything is immediately accessible and clear. Searching for items dims the application and begins to highlight elements that contain the relevant topic, helping to guide you to the location and establishing to the user where they can go in the future without the need to search. Inside any menu of the system preferences, search is always accesible and in the same consistent location of the application.


When we look at Gnome, in the settings application we see that not all available settings are displayed - the gutter column on the left is a scrollable UI element, but with no scroll bars present, this could be missed by a user that the functionality is present. Items like “Applications” which have a “>” present confusingly changes the gutter context to a list of applications rather than remaining at the top level when selected like all other items that don’t have the “>”. Breaking the users idea of consistency, when in these sub-gutters, the search icon is replaced with the “back” navigation icon, meaning you can not search when in a sub-gutter.

Finally, even visually we can see that the settings is physically larger as a window, with much larger fonts and the title bar containing much more dead space. The search icon (when present) requires interaction before the search text area appears adding extra clicks and interactions to achieve the task.

When we do search, the results are replaced into the gutter element. Screen lock here is actually in a sub-gutter menu for privacy, and not discoverable at the top level as an element. The use of nested gutters here adds confusion about where items are due to all the gutter content changes.


Again we are starting to see differences here:

  • MacOS search uses greater visual feedback to help guide users to where they need to be
  • Gnome hides many options in sub-menus, or with very few graphical guides which hinders discovery of items
  • Again, the use of dead space in Gnome vs the greater use of space in MacOS
  • Gnome requires more interactions to “get around” in general
  • Gnome applications visually are larger and take up more space of the screen
  • Gnome changes the UI and layout in subtle and inconsistent ways that rely on contextual knowledge of “where” you currently are in the application

Context Menus

Lets have a look at some of the menus that exist in the system tray area now. For now I’ll focus on audio, but these differences broadly apply to all of the various items here on MacOS and Gnome.

On MacOS when we select our audio icon in the system tray, we are presented with a menu that contains the current volume, the current audio output device (including options for network streaming) and a link to the system preferencs control panel for further audio settings that may exist. We aren’t overwhelmed with settings or choices, but we do have the ability to change our common options and shortcut links to get to the extended settings if needed.


A common trick in MacOS though is holding the option key during interactions. Often this can display power-user or extended capabilities. When done on the audio menu, we are also able to then control our input device selection.


On Gnome, in the system tray there is only a single element, that controls audio, power, network and more.


All we can do in this menu is control the volume - that’s it. There are no links to direct audio settings, device management, and there are no “hidden” shortcuts (like option) that allows greater context or control.

To summarise our differences:

  • MacOS provides topic-specific system tray menus, with greater functionality and links to further settings
  • Gnome has a combined menu, that is limited in functionality, and has only a generic link to settings
  • Gnome lacks the ability to gain extended options for power-users to view extra settings or details

File Browser

Finally lets look at the file browser. For fairness, I’ve changed Gnome’s default layout to “list” to match my own usage in finder.


We can already see a number of useful elements here. We have the ability to “tree” folders through the “>” icon, and rows of the browser alternate white/grey to help us visually identify lines horizontally. The rows are small and able to have (in this screenshot) 16 rows of content on the screen simultaneously. Finally, not shown here, but MacOS finder can use tabs for browsing different locations. And as before, we have our application context menu in the top bar with a large amount of actions available.


Gnomes rows are all white with extremely faint grey lines to delineate, making it hard to horizontally track items if the window was expanded. The icons are larger, and there is no ability to tree the files and folders. We can only see ~10 rows on screen despite the similar size of the windows presented here. Finally, the extended options are hidden in the “burger” menu next to the application close.

A theme should be apparent here:

  • Both MacOS and Gnome share a very similar skeleton of how this application is laid out
  • MacOS makes better use of visual elements to help your eye track across spaces to make connections
  • Gnome has a lot of dead space still and larger text and icons which takes greater amounts of screen space
  • Due to the application context and other higher level items, MacOS is “faster” to get to where you need to go

Keyboard Shortcuts

Keyboard shortcuts are something that aide powerusers to achieve tasks quicker, but the challenge is often finding what shortcuts exist to use them. Lets look at how MacOS and Gnome solve this.


Here in MacOS, anytime we open a menu, we can see the shortcut listed next to the menu item that is present, including disabled items (that are dimmed). Each shortcut’s symbols match the symbols of the keyboard allowing these to be cross-language and accessible. And since we are in a menu, we remain in the context of our Application and able to then immediately use the menu or shortcut.

In fact, even if we select the help menu and search a new topic, rather than take us away from menu’s, MacOS opens the menu and points us to where we are trying to go, allowing us to find the action we want and learn it’s shortcut!


This is great, because it means in the process of getting help, we are shown how to perform the action for future interactions. Because of the nature of MacOS human interface guidelines this pattern exists for all applications on the platform, including third party ones helping to improve accessibility of these features.

Gnome however takes a really different approach. Keyboard shortcuts are listed as a menu item from our burger menu.


When we select it, our applications context is taken away and replaced with a dictionary of keyboard shortcuts, spread over three pages.


I think the use of the keyboard icons here is excellent, but because we are now in a dictionary of shortcuts, it’s hard to find what we want to use, and we “taken away” from the context of the actions we are trying to perform in our application. Again, we have to perform more interactions to find the information that we are looking for in our applications, and we aren’t able to easily link the action to the shortcut in this style of presentation. We can’t transfer our knowledge of the “menus” into a shortcut that we can use without going through a reference manual.

Another issue here is this becomes the responsibility of each application to create these references and provide them, rather than being an automatically inherited feature through the adherence to human interface guidelines.


Honestly, I could probably keep making these comparisons all day. Gnome 3 and MacOS really do feel very similar to me. From style of keyboard shortcuts, layout of the UI, the structure of it’s applications and even it’s approach to windowing feels identical to MacOS. However while it looks similar on a surface level, there are many rough edges, excess interactions, poor use of screen space and visual elements.

MacOS certainly has it’s flaws, and makes it’s mistakes. But from a ease of use perspective, it tries to get out of the way and show you how to use the computer for yourself. MacOS takes a back seat to the usage of the computer.

Gnome however feels like it wants to be front and centre. It needs you to know all the time “you’re using Gnome!”. It takes you on a small adventure tour to complete simple actions or to discover new things. It even feels like Gnome has tried to reduce “complexity” so much that they have thrown away many rich features and interactions that could make a computer easier to use and interact with.

So for me, this is why I feel that Gnome is like MacOS with rough edges. There are many small, subtle and frustrating user interactions like this all through out the Gnome 3 experience that just aren’t present in MacOS.

StartTLS in LDAP

LDAP as a protocol is a binary protocol which uses ASN.1 BER encoded structures to communicate between a client and server, to query directory information (ie users, groups, locations, etc).

When this was created there was little consideration to security with regard to person-in-the-middle attacks (aka mitm: meddler in the middle, interception). As LDAP has become used not just as a directory service for accessing information, but now as an authentication and authorisation system it’s important that the content of these communications is secure from tampering or observation.

There have been a number of introduced methods to try and assist with this situation. These are:

  • StartTLS
  • SASL with encryption layers
  • LDAPS (LDAP over TLS)

Other protocols of a similar age also have used StartTLS such as SMTP and IMAP. However recent research has (again) shown issues with correct StartTLS handling, and recommends using SMTPS or IMAPS.

Today the same is true of LDAP - the only secure method of communication to an LDAP server is LDAPS. In this blog, I’ll be exploring the issues that exist with StartTLS (I will not cover SASL or GSSAPI).

How does StartTLS work?

StartTLS works by starting a plaintext (unencrypted) connection to the LDAP server, and then by upgrading that connection to begin TLS within the existing connection.

┌───────────┐                            ┌───────────┐
│           │                            │           │
│           │─────────open tcp 389──────▶│           │
│           │◀────────────ok─────────────│           │
│           │                            │           │
│           │                            │           │
│           │────────ldap starttls──────▶│           │
│           │◀──────────success──────────│           │
│           │                            │           │
│  Client   │                            │  Server   │
│           │──────tls client hello─────▶│           │
│           │◀─────tls server hello──────│           │
│           │────────tls key xchg───────▶│           │
│           │◀────────tls finish─────────│           │
│           │                            │           │
│           │──────TLS(ldap bind)───────▶│           │
│           │                            │           │
│           │                            │           │
└───────────┘                            └───────────┘

As we can see in LDAP StartTLS we establish a valid plaintext tcp connection, and then we send and LDAP message containing a StartTLS extended operation. If successful, we begin a TLS handshake over the connection, and when complete, our traffic is now encrypted.

This is contrast to LDAPS where TLS must be successfully established before the first LDAP message is exchanged.

It’s a good time to note that this is inefficent as it takes an extra round-trip to establish StartTLS like this contrast to LDAPS which increases latency for all communications. LDAP clients tend to open and close many connections, so this adds up quickly.

Security Issues

Client Misconfiguration

LDAP servers at the start of a connection will only accept two LDAP messages. Bind (authenticate) and StartTLS. Since StartTLS starts with a plaintext connection, if a client is misconfigured it is trivial for it to operate without StartTLS.

For example, consider the following commands.

# ldapwhoami -H ldap:// -x -D 'cn=Directory Manager' -W
Enter LDAP Password:
dn: cn=directory manager
# ldapwhoami -H ldap:// -x -Z -D 'cn=Directory Manager' -W
Enter LDAP Password:
dn: cn=directory manager

Notice that in both, the command succeeds and we authenticate. However, only in the second command are we using StartTLS. This means we trivially leaked our password. Forcing LDAPS to be the only protocol prevents this as every byte of the connection is always encrypted.

# ldapwhoami -H ldaps:// -x -D 'cn=Directory Manager' -W
Enter LDAP Password:
dn: cn=directory manager

Simply put this means that if you forget to add the command line flag for StartTLS, forget the checkbox in an admin console, or any other kind of possible human error (which happen!), then LDAP will silently continue without enforcing that StartTLS is present.

For a system to be secure we must prevent human error from being a factor by removing elements of risk in our systems.


A response to the above is to enforce MinSSF, or “Minimum Security Strength Factor”. This is an option on both OpenLDAP and 389-ds and is related to the integration of SASL. It represents that the bind method used must have “X number of bits” of security (however X is very arbitrary and not really representative of true security).

In the context of StartTLS or TLS, the provided SSF becomes the number of bits in the symmetric encryption used in the connection. Generally this is 128 due to the use of AES128.

Let us assume we have configured MinSSF=128 and we attempt to bind to our server.

┌───────────┐                            ┌───────────┐
│           │                            │           │
│           │─────────open tcp 389──────▶│           │
│           │◀────────────ok─────────────│           │
│  Client   │                            │  Server   │
│           │                            │           │
│           │──────────ldap bind────────▶│           │
│           │◀───────error - minssf──────│           │
│           │                            │           │
└───────────┘                            └───────────┘

The issue here is the minssf isn’t enforced until the bind message is sent. If we look at the LDAP rfc we see:

BindRequest ::= [APPLICATION 0] SEQUENCE {
     version                 INTEGER (1 ..  127),
     name                    LDAPDN,
     authentication          AuthenticationChoice }

AuthenticationChoice ::= CHOICE {
     simple                  [0] OCTET STRING,
                             -- 1 and 2 reserved
     sasl                    [3] SaslCredentials,
     ...  }

SaslCredentials ::= SEQUENCE {
     mechanism               LDAPString,
     credentials             OCTET STRING OPTIONAL }

Which means that in a simple bind (password) in the very first message we send our plaintext password. MinSSF only tells us after we already made the mistake, so this is not a suitable defence.

StartTLS can be disregarded

An interesting aspect of how StartTLS works with LDAP is that it’s possible to prevent it from being installed successfully. If we look at the RFC:

If the server is otherwise unwilling or unable to perform this
operation, the server is to return an appropriate result code
indicating the nature of the problem.  For example, if the TLS
subsystem is not presently available, the server may indicate this by
returning with the resultCode set to unavailable.  In cases where a
non-success result code is returned, the LDAP session is left without
a TLS layer.

What this means is it is up to the client and how they respond to this error to enforce a correct behaviour. An example of a client that disregards this error may proceed such as:

┌───────────┐                            ┌───────────┐
│           │                            │           │
│           │─────────open tcp 389──────▶│           │
│           │◀────────────ok─────────────│           │
│           │                            │           │
│  Client   │                            │  Server   │
│           │────────ldap starttls──────▶│           │
│           │◀───────starttls error──────│           │
│           │                            │           │
│           │─────────ldap bind─────────▶│           │
│           │                            │           │
└───────────┘                            └───────────┘

In this example, the ldap bind proceeds even though TLS is not active, again leaking our password in plaintext. A classic example of this is OpenLDAP’s own cli tools which in almost all examples of StartTLS online use the option ‘-Z’ to enable this.

# ldapwhoami -Z -H ldap:// -D 'cn=Directory Manager' -w password
ldap_start_tls: Protocol error (2)
dn: cn=Directory Manager

The quirk is that ‘-Z’ here only means to try StartTLS. If you want to fail when it’s not available you need ‘-ZZ’. This is a pretty easy mistake for any administrator to make when typing a command. There is no way to configure in ldap.conf that you always want StartTLS enforced either leaving it again to human error. Given the primary users of the ldap cli are directory admins, this makes it a high value credential open to potential human input error.

Within client applications a similar risk exists that the developers need to correctly enforce this behaviour. Thankfully for us, the all client applications that I tested handle this correctly:

  • SSSD
  • nslcd
  • ldapvi
  • python-ldap

However, I am sure there are many others that should be tested to ensure that they correctly handle errors during StartTLS.

Referral Injection

Referral’s are a feature of LDAP that allow responses to include extra locations where a client may look for the data they requested, or to extend the data they requested. Due to the design of LDAP and it’s response codes, referrals are valid in all response messages.

LDAP StartTLS does allow a referral as a valid response for the client to then follow - this may be due to the requested server being undermaintenance or similar.

Depending on the client implementation, this may allow an mitm to proceed. There are two possible scenarioes.

Assuming the client does do certificate validation, but is poorly coded, the following may occur:

┌───────────┐                            ┌───────────┐
│           │                            │           │
│           │─────────open tcp 389──────▶│           │
│           │◀────────────ok─────────────│           │
│           │                            │  Server   │
│           │                            │           │
│           │────────ldap starttls──────▶│           │
│           │◀──────────referral─────────│           │
│           │                            │           │
│           │                            └───────────┘
│  Client   │
│           │                            ┌───────────┐
│           │─────────ldap bind─────────▶│           │
│           │                            │           │
│           │                            │           │
│           │                            │ Malicious │
│           │                            │  Server   │
│           │                            │           │
│           │                            │           │
│           │                            │           │
└───────────┘                            └───────────┘

In this example our server sent a referral as a response to the StartTLS extended operation, which the client then followed - however the client did not attempt to install StartTLS again when contacting the malicious server. This would allow a bypass of certification validation by simply never letting TLS begin at all. Thankfully the clients I tested did not exhibt this behaviour, but it is possible.

If the client has configured certificate validation to never (tls_reqcert = never, which is a surprisingly common setting …) then the following is possible.

┌───────────┐                            ┌───────────┐
│           │                            │           │
│           │─────────open tcp 389──────▶│           │
│           │◀────────────ok─────────────│           │
│           │                            │  Server   │
│           │                            │           │
│           │────────ldap starttls──────▶│           │
│           │◀──────────referral─────────│           │
│           │                            │           │
│           │                            └───────────┘
│  Client   │
│           │                            ┌───────────┐
│           │────────ldap starttls──────▶│           │
│           │◀──────────success──────────│           │
│           │                            │           │
│           │◀──────TLS installed───────▶│ Malicious │
│           │                            │  Server   │
│           │───────TLS(ldap bind)──────▶│           │
│           │                            │           │
│           │                            │           │
└───────────┘                            └───────────┘

In this example the client follows the referral and then attempts to install StartTLS again. The malicious server may present any certificate it wishes and can then intercept traffic.

In my testing I found that this affected both SSSD and nslcd, however both of these when redirected to the malicous server would attempt to install StartTLS over an existing StartTLS channel, which caused the server to return an error condition. Potentially a modified malicious server in this case would be able to install two layers of TLS, or a response that would successfully trick these clients to divulging further information. I have not yet spent time to research this further.


While not as significant as the results found on “No Start TLS”, LDAP still is potentially exposed to risks related to StartTLS usage. To mitigate these LDAP server providers should disable plaintext LDAP ports and exclusively use LDAPS, with tls_reqcert set to “demand”.

Getting started with Yew

Yew is a really nice framework for writing single-page-applications in Rust, that is then compiled to wasm for running in the browser. For me it has helped make web development much more accessible to me, but getting started with it isn’t always straight forward.

This is the bare-minimum to get a “hello world” in your browser - from there you can build on that foundation to make many more interesting applications.



  • Ensure that you have rust, which you can setup with RustUp.
  • Ensure that you have brew, which you can install from the Homebrew Project. This is used to install other tools.
  • Install wasm-pack. wasm-pack is what drives the rust to wasm build process.
cargo install wasm-pack
  • Install npm and rollup. npm is needed to install rollup, and rollup is what takes our wasm and javacript and bundles them together for our browser.
brew install npm
npm install --global rollup
  • Install miniserve for hosting our website locally during development.
brew install miniserve

A new project

We can now create a new rust project. Note we use –lib to indicate that it’s a library, not an executable.

cargo new --lib yewdemo

To start with we’ll need some boilerplate and helpers to get ourselves started.

index.html - our default page that will load our wasm to run. This is our “entrypoint” into the site that starts everything else off. In this case it loads our bundled javascript.

<!DOCTYPE html>
    <meta charset="utf-8">
    <script src="/pkg/bundle.js" defer></script>

main.js - this is our javascript entrypoint that we’ll be using. Remember to change PROJECTNAME to your crate name (ie yewdemo). This will be combined with our wasm to create the bundle.js file.

import init, { run_app } from './pkg/PROJECTNAME.js';
async function main() {
   await init('/pkg/PROJECTNAME_bg.wasm');

Cargo.toml - we need to extend Cargo.toml with some dependencies and settings that allows wasm to build and our framework dependencies.

crate-type = ["cdylib"]

wasm-bindgen = "^0.2"
yew = "0.18" - create this file to help us build our project. Remember to call chmod +x so that you can execute it later.

wasm-pack build --target web && \
    rollup ./main.js --format iife --file ./pkg/bundle.js

src/ - this is a template of a minimal start point for yew. This has all the stubs in place for a minimal “hello world” website.

use wasm_bindgen::prelude::*;
use yew::prelude::*;
use yew::services::ConsoleService;

pub struct App {
    link: ComponentLink<Self>,

impl Component for App {
    type Message = App;
    type Properties = ();

    // This is called when our App is initially created.
    fn create(_: Self::Properties, link: ComponentLink<Self>) -> Self {
        App {

    fn change(&mut self, _: Self::Properties) -> ShouldRender {

    // Called during event callbacks initiated by events (user or browser)
    fn update(&mut self, msg: Self::Message) -> ShouldRender {

    // Render our content to the page, emitting Html that will be loaded into our
    // index.html's <body>
    fn view(&self) -> Html {
        ConsoleService::log("Hello World!");
        html! {
                <h2>{ "Hello World" }</h2>

// This is the entry point that main.js calls into.
pub fn run_app() -> Result<(), JsValue> {

Building your Hello World

Now you can build your project with:


And if you want to see it on your machine in your browser:

miniserve -v --index index.html .

Navigate to to see your Hello World!


I made all the following mistakes while writing this blog 😅 - permission denied

zsh: permission denied: ./

You need to run “chmod +x” so that you can execute this. Permission denied means that the executable bits are missing from the file.

building - ‘Could not resolve’

./main.js → ./pkg/bundle.js...
[!] Error: Could not resolve './pkg/PROJECTNAME.js' from main.js
Error: Could not resolve './pkg/PROJECTNAME.js' from main.js

This error means you need to edit main.js so that PROJECTNAME matches your crate name.

Blank Page in Browser

When you first load your page it may be blank. You can check if a file is missing or incorrectly named by right clicking the page, select ‘inspect’, and in the inspector go to the ‘network’ tab.

From there refresh your page, and see if any files 404. If they do you may need to rename them or there is an error in yoru main.js. A common one is:


This is because in main.js you may have changed the await init line, and removed the suffix _bg.

# Incorrect
await init('/pkg/PROJECTNAME.wasm');
# Correct
await init('/pkg/PROJECTNAME_bg.wasm');

Compiler Bootstrapping - Can We Trust Rust?

Recently I have been doing a lot of work for SUSE with how we package the Rust compiler. This process has been really interesting and challenging, but like anything it’s certainly provided a lot of time for thought while waiting for my packages to build.

The Rust package in OpenSUSE has two methods of building the compiler internally in it’s spec file.

    1. Use our previously packaged version of rustc from packages
    1. Bootstrap using the signed and prebuilt binaries provided by the rust project


There are many advocates of bootstrapping and then self sustaining a chain of compilers within a distribution. The roots of this come from Ken Thompsons Turing Award speech known as Reflections on trusting trust . This details the process in which a compiler can be backdoored, to produce future backdoored compilers. This has been replicated by Manish G. detailed in their blog, Reflections on Rusting Trust where they successfully create a self-hosting backdoored rust compiler.

The process can be visualised as:

┌──────────────┐              ┌──────────────┐
│  Backdoored  │              │   Trusted    │
│   Sources    │──────┐       │   Sources    │──────┐
│              │      │       │              │      │
└──────────────┘      │       └──────────────┘      │
                      │                             │
┌──────────────┐      │       ┌──────────────┐      │      ┌──────────────┐
│   Trusted    │      ▼       │  Backdoored  │      ▼      │  Backdoored  │
│ Interpreter  │──Produces───▶│    Binary    ├──Produces──▶│    Binary    │
│              │              │              │             │              │
└──────────────┘              └──────────────┘             └──────────────┘

We can see that in this attack, even with a set of trusted compiler sources, we can continue to produce a chain of backdoored binaries.

This has led to many people, and even groups such as Bootstrappable promoting work to be able to produce trusted chains from trusted sources, so that we can assert a level of trust in our produced compiler binaries.

┌──────────────┐              ┌──────────────┐
│   Trusted    │              │   Trusted    │
│   Sources    │──────┐       │   Sources    │──────┐
│              │      │       │              │      │
└──────────────┘      │       └──────────────┘      │
                      │                             │
┌──────────────┐      │       ┌──────────────┐      │      ┌──────────────┐
│   Trusted    │      ▼       │              │      ▼      │              │
│ Interpreter  │──Produces───▶│Trusted Binary├──Produces──▶│Trusted Binary│
│              │              │              │             │              │
└──────────────┘              └──────────────┘             └──────────────┘

This process would continue forever to the right, where each trusted binary is the result of trusted sources. This then ties into topics like reproducible builds which assert that you can separately rebuild the sources and attain the same binary, showing the process can not have been tampered with.

But does it really work like that?

Outside of thought exercises, there is little evidence of these attacks being carried out in reality.

Last year in 2020 we saw supply chain attacks such as the Solarwinds supply chain attacks which was reported by Fireeye as “Inserting malicious code into legitimate software updates for the Orion software that allow an attacker remote access into the victim’s environment”. What’s really interesting here was that no compiler was compromised in the process like our theoretical attack, but code was simply inserted and then subsequently was released.

Tavis Ormandy in his blog You don’t need reproducible builds covers supply chain security, and examines why reproducible builds are not effective in the promises and claims they present. Importantly, Tavis discusses how trivial it is to insert “bugdoors”, or pieces of code that are malicious and will not be found, and can potentially be waved off as human error.

Today, we don’t even need bugdoors, with Microsoft Security Response Centre reporting that 70% of vulnerabilities are memory safety issues.

No amount of reproducible builds or compiler bootstrapping chain can shield us from the reality that attackers today will target the softest area, and today that is security issues in our languages, and insecure configuration of supply chain infrastructure.

We don’t need backdoored compilers when we know that a security critical piece of software written in C is still exposed to the network.

But lets assume …

Okay, so lets assume that backdoored compilers are a real risk for a moment. We need to establish a few things first to create our secure bootstrapping environment, and these requirements generally are extremely difficult to meet.

We will need:

  • Trusted Interpreter
  • Trusted Sources

This is the foundation, having these two trusted entities that we can use to begin the process. But what is “trusted”? How can we define that these items are truly trusted?

One method could be to check the cryptographic signatures of the released source code, to validate that it is “what was released”, but this does not mean that the source code is free from backdoors/bugdoors which are the very thing we are attempting to shield ourselves from.

What would be truly required here is a detailed and complete audit of all of the source code to these compilers, which would be a monumental task in and of itself. So today instead, we do not perform source code audits, and we blindly trust the providers of the source code as legitimate and having provided us tamper-free source code. We assert that blind trust through the validation of those cryptographic signatures. We blindly trust that they have vetted every commit and line of code, and they have not had their own source code supply chain compromised in some way to provide us this “trusted source”. This gives us a relationship with the producers of that source, that they are trustworthy and have performed vetting of code and their members with privileges, that they will “do the right thing”™.

The second challenge is asserting trust in the interpreter. Where did this binary come from? How was it built? Were it’s sources trusted? As one can imagine, this becomes a very deep rabbit hole when we want to chase it, but in reality the approach taken by todays linux distributions is that “well we haven’t been compromised to this point, so I guess this one is okay” and we yolo build with it. We then create a root of trust in that one point in time, which then creates our bootstrapping chain of trust for future builds of subsequent trusted sources.

So what about Rust?

Rust is interesting compared to something like C (clang/gcc), as the rust project not only provides signed sources, they also provide signed static binaries of their compiler. This is because unlike clang/gcc which have very long release lifecycles, rust is released every six weeks and to build version N of the compiler, requires version N or N - 1. This allows people who have missed a version to easily skip ahead without needing to build every intermediate version of the compiler.

A frequent complaint is the difficulty to package rust because any time releases are missed, you must compile every intermediate version to adhere to the bootstrappable guidelines and principles to created a more “trusted” compiler.

But just like any other humans, in order to save time, when we miss a version, we can use the rust language’s provided signed binaries to reset the chain, allowing us to miss versions of rust, or to re-package older versions in some cases.

                        ┌──────────────┐             ┌──────────────┐
                 │      │   Trusted    │             │   Trusted    │
              Missed    │   Sources    │──────┐      │   Sources    │──────┐
             Version!   │              │      │      │              │      │
                 │      └──────────────┘      │      └──────────────┘      │
                 │                            │                            │
┌──────────────┐ │      ┌──────────────┐      │      ┌──────────────┐      │
│              │ │      │Trusted Binary│      ▼      │              │      ▼
│Trusted Binary│ │      │ (from rust)  ├──Produces──▶│Trusted Binary│──Produces───▶ ...
│              │ │      │              │             │              │
└──────────────┘ │      └──────────────┘             └──────────────┘

This process here is interesting because:

  • Using the signed binary from rust-lang is actually faster since we can skip one compiler rebuild cycle due to being the same version as the sources
  • It shows that the “bootstrappable” trust chain, does not actually matter since we frequently move our trust root to the released binary from rust, rather than building all intermediates

Given this process, we must ask, what value do we have from trying to adhere to the bootstrappable principles with rust? We already root our trust in the rust project, meaning that because we blindly trust the sources and the static compiler, why would our resultant compiler be any more “trustworthy” just because we were the ones who compiled it?

Beyond this the binaries that are issued by the rust project are used by thousands of people every day through tools like rustup. In reality, these have been proven time and time again that they are trusted to be able to run on mass deployments, and that the rust project has the ability and capability to respond to issues in their source code as well as the binaries they provide. They certainly have earned the trust of many people through this!

So why do we keep assuming both that we are somehow more trustworthy than the rust project, but simultaneously they are fully trusted in the artefacts they provide to us?


It is this contradiction that has made me rethink the process that we take to packaging rust in SUSE. I think we should bootstrap from upstream rust every release because the rust project are in a far better position to perform audits and respond to trust threats than part time package maintainers that are commonly part of Linux distributions.

│ ┌──────────────┐                              │ ┌──────────────┐
│ │   Trusted    │                              │ │   Trusted    │
│ │   Sources    │──────┐                       │ │   Sources    │──────┐
│ │              │      │                       │ │              │      │
│ └──────────────┘      │                       │ └──────────────┘      │
│                       │                       │                       │
│ ┌──────────────┐      │      ┌──────────────┐ │ ┌──────────────┐      │      ┌──────────────┐
│ │Trusted Binary│      ▼      │              │ │ │Trusted Binary│      ▼      │              │
│ │ (from rust)  ├──Produces──▶│Trusted Binary│ │ │ (from rust)  ├──Produces──▶│Trusted Binary│
│ │              │             │              │ │ │              │             │              │
│ └──────────────┘             └──────────────┘ │ └──────────────┘             └──────────────┘

We already fully trust the sources they release, and we already fully trust their binary compiler releases. We can simplify our build process (and speed it up!) by acknowledging this trust relationship exists, rather than trying to continue to convince ourselves that we are somehow “more trusted” than the rust project.

Also we must consider the reality of threats in the wild. Does all of this work and discussions of who is more trusted really pay off and defend us in reality? Or are we focused on these topics because they are something that we can control and have opinions over, rather than acknowledging the true complexity and dirtiness of security threats as they truly exist today?

Open Source Enshrines the Wrong Privilege

Within Open Source/Free Software, we repeatedly see a set of behaviours - hostile or toxic project owners, abusive relationships, aggression towards users, and complete disregard to users of the software. Some projects have risen above this and advanced the social behaviours in their communities, but these are still the minority of projects.

Many advocates for FLOSS have been trying to enhance adoption of these technologies in communities, but with the exception of limited non-technical audiences, this really hasn’t gained much ground.

It is my opinion that these community behaviours, and the low adoption of FLOSS technologies comes back to what our Open Source licenses enshrine - the very thing they embody and create.

The Origins of Free Software

The story of Free Software starts with an individual (later revealed as abusive), who was frustrated at not being able to access software on a printer so that he could alter it’s behaviour. This has been extended to the idea that Free Software “grants people control over their own lives and software”.

This however, is not correct.

What Free Software licenses protect is that individuals with time, resources, specialised technical knowledge and social standing have the possibility to alter that software’s behaviour.

When we consider that the majority of the world are not developers or software engineers, what is it that our Free Software is doing to protect and support these individuals? Should we truly expect individuals who are linguists, authors, scientists, retail staff, or social workers to be able to “alter the software to fix their own problems”?

Even as technical experts, we are frustrated when someone closes an issue with “PR’s welcome”. Imagine how these other people feel when they can’t even express or report the problem in the first place or get told they aren’t good enough, or that “they can fix it themselves if they want”.

This attitude also discounts the subject matter knowledge required to alter or contribute to any piece of software however. I may be a Senior Software Engineer, but I lack the knowledge and time to contribute to Gnome for example. Even with these “freedoms” I lack the ability to “control” the software on my own system.

Open Source is Selfish

These licenses that we have in FLOSS all enshrine selfish and privileged behaviours.

I have the rights to freely access this code so I can read it or alter it.

I can change this project to fix issues I have.

I have freedoms.

None of these statements from FLOSS describe other people - the people who consume our software (in some cases, without choice). People who are not subject matter experts and can’t contribute to “solve their own problems”. People who may not have the experience and language to describe the problems they face.

This lack of empathy, the lack of concern for others in FLOSS leads us to where we are now. Those who have the subject matter knowledge lead projects, and do what they want because they can fix it. They tell others “PR’s welcome” knowing full-well that the other person may never be able to contribute, that the barriers to contribution are so high (both in programming experience and domain knowledge). They design the software to work the way they want, because they understand it and it “works for me”.

This is reflected in our software. Software that not does not care for the needs, experiences or rights of others. Software that pretends to be accessible, all while creating gated communities of control. Software that is out of reach of people, the same people that we “claim” to be working for and supporting.

It leads to our communities that are selfish, and do not empathise with people. Communities that have placed negative behaviours on pedestals and turned these people into “leaders”. Software that does not account for the experiences of our users, believing that the “community knows best”.

One does not need to look far for FLOSS projects that speak one set of words, but their actions do not align.

What Can We Do?

In our projects we need to go beyond preserving the freedoms of ourselves, and begin to discuss the freedoms and interactions that others should have with our systems and projects. Here are some starting ideas that I have:

  • Have a code of conduct for all contributors (remember, opening an issue is a contribution).
  • Document your target users, and what kind of experience they should have. Expand this over time.
  • Promote empathy for those who aren’t direct contributors - indirect users without choice exist.
  • Remove dependencies on as many problematic software projects as possible.
  • Push for improvements to open licenses that enshrine the freedoms of others - not just developers.

As individual communities we can advance the state of software and how we act socially so that future projects and users are in a better place. No software exists in a vacuum, all software exists to support people. We need to always keep in mind the effects our software has on others.