SHA, or Secure Hash Algorithm is a hash function initially announced in 1995 by the United States’ NSA. It become widely popular with appliances for password hashes, certificates and a variety of software. The implementation made it to SSL (and later TLS) collections, SSH, PGP and many more. From the very moment of publication, SHA-1 was contested by cryptography researchers from all over the world, but not to much success. It took 10 years after the initial publication for the first papers to appear claiming weakening SHA-1 to some extent. The papers remained theoretical due to the cost – it would take almost $3mil of CPU power to execute the attack. It took another 10 years for a group of security researchers to further weaken SHA-1 and actually demonstrate an attack by moving the computation to 64 Nvidia GPUs. And why am I writing this? Mainly because this is a story of great success – for a hash function – to remain unbroken for over 2 decades. Still, around 2015 various security authority boards have decided that, by Moore’s Law, within the next 2-3 years, the cost of attacking SHA-1 by brute force was going to be economically viable and generally available. Based on that SHA-1 was to be gradually removed from public use.

On a side note, here’s one very intriguing case with lots of food for thought. Due to the wide adoption of SHA-1, the ban was instated by various decision makers at different times. In 2015, the Browser Forum decided that SSL certificates using SHA-1 can no longer be issued after the 1st of January 2016. Was this enough to stop all CA’s from issuing the popular SHA-1 certificates, sometimes even hard-coded into proprietary software? Dit auditors save the world as it is widely expected by various company boards? Read the full story and brilliant analysis here.

Back to the original subject, I got a bit nostalgic for a reason, and it is not because I hadn’t had steak for a while. Dirty COW is a funny acronym for a rare race condition introduced into the Linux kernel Copy-On-Write code around 2007 (kernel 2.6.22). It is not however a new vulnerability. Linus Torvalds revealed that even though it was discovered long time ago, the race condition leading to privilege escalation was rare enough that it was actually discarded. It was concluded that computation resources required to trigger the condition are not realistic. And almost 10 years later anyone can execute a local exploit and bypass internal security countermeasures companies spend huge sums on. The exploit is easy to obtain, execute and has a very high success rate.

Two completely different cases and security risks. And a complete contrast in strategy. Or the lack of. A decision to obsolete SHA-1 well in advance of vulnerabilities, despite a decent design. And no decision for a ticking bomb. I have read many quotes by Linus on security (or actually against security). Don’t get me wrong, he still is a brilliant lead for the kernel development, but why wouldn’t the Linux Foundation add the missing strategy? Track security bugs that are closed for a reason like this one and react on time? Someone might say “that’s not their job”. If reality requires it, it has to become someone’s job.