Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

42 Astoundingly Useful Scripts and Automations for the Macintosh

Work faster and more reliably. Add actions to the services menu and the menu bar, create drag-and-drop apps to make your Macintosh play music, roll dice, and talk. Create ASCII art from photos. There’s a script for that in 42 Astounding Scripts for the Macintosh.

I can’t think of any other way to do it

Jerry Stratton, December 15, 2006

I thought I understood that we don’t care about security at the University, but I didn’t truly understand the extent of the problem. Today, a Friday evening, just after I got home from the office, I got a call that no one could log in to our web server.

My first thought was, shit, I fucked up! Because of previous problems with our authentication system, I had partially decoupled the web server from our authentication system. Rather than have the web server become inaccessible whenever the authentication system became inaccessible, I had the web server cache authentication information locally. I had manually pushed out the cache early in the afternoon. Did I screw something up?

So I went and looked at the password file, and no, every account was there.

But every account also had the same password hash.

I knew that the LDAP system administrator had been editing LDAP earlier in the day to restore an accidentally deleted account. Did they mistakenly reset everyone’s password to the same one in the process?

No, it turns out that we did this on purpose. In preparation for a mail migration, we created a second password for every account that is exactly the same. My caching script was picking up on this second password. It was easy enough to fix this in the caching script, but this blew my mind.

Every single system at the University that requires a password now not only has a back door but they all have the same back door! Grades, shell access, web pages, homework, class registration, tuition payments, campus cash, and transcripts. Everything that requires a password now has a single backdoor that lets someone with knowledge of that back door view and change data.

The guy who tried to justify it did so by saying that our security was ironclad, and even if it wasn’t the change was only for the weekend. That’s like saying I didn’t kill the victim, your honor, and if I did it was self-defense.

“But I was only aware of two systems that use LDAP: the junk mail system and the mail system. What else uses it?” I mean, Christ, what is the purpose of a central authentication system? Our main server for personal web pages and file transfers uses it. Everyone at the University has an account there. The web server uses it. People use it to access their grades, to register for classes, and to update their transcripts. Every single system that requires a password uses it! Stupid little servers off in the art department that are managed by the art department use it!

“I can’t think of any other way to do it.” The obvious way is to program the systems to talk only to each other during the migration. Even if you have to use a secondary password in LDAP, systems nowadays run their own LDAP server to cache (for a few seconds at most) LDAP information. The secondary password can be entered on the necessary systems. In this case there were only two.

Even if the system somehow doesn’t run a configurable LDAP, a replication server (even we run replicated LDAP servers; we’re smart, just smart enough to shoot ourselves in the head) can be set up. The secondary password is entered on that server, and only the affected systems are pointed at it. It’s seamless and it gives us another backup authentication server. It’s probably still a bad idea, but it isn’t so grotesquely bad that it endangers every authenticated system we have. It only (in this case) endangers every mail store.

“And anyway, what could they do even if they got the password. It’s only temporary. We back everything up.” If any one of the systems that access our LDAP server has already been hacked, and the hacker notices that every account now has a second password that is the same for all accounts, what do you want to think they’re going to start trying to crack that hash? One single password that gives them access to every user-related service on campus? No, they’ll probably ignore it and go back to playing tetris on the command line.


I wrote earlier about the Slashdot Test. This one fails it so badly I can’t imagine what the reaction would be. Setting up a single, universal back door to every authenticated service at the University is never the “only solution”. I used to think that a central authentication system was a good idea because it keeps people from having to post all of their passwords on sticky notes on their monitors. But if it also makes it more likely that IT is going to royally fuck up, we haven’t gained much.

I only found out about this one because (a) I already didn’t trust our LDAP server, (b) I was caching to a format that only allowed for one password, and (c) the script’s design caused it to choose the wrong one. God only knows how much other crap like this is on our system.

But none of this is even the funny part. It’s just sad. The funny part is that before I was called, the person who first noticed the problem went to the network group and asked them if there had been any changes that might affect logging in to the web server. “No, there were no major changes today.” I don’t know what constitutes a major change, but adding an alternate password to all 19,000 accounts sounds like one to me.

Oh, and of course it goes without saying, we made this major change to the LDAP system on a Friday afternoon, ensuring that even if someone does hack us, we won’t know until the hacker tells us, probably by turning all of our web pages into a porn emporium or setting all of our student grades to D-. “Lake Wobegon, where all the students are below average.”

March 14, 2007: Publicly available passwords

One of our departmental accounts was having trouble logging in. When I looked at their LDAP entry, I noticed that their home directory was wrong. In fact, it didn’t look like a home directory at all. It looked like a password—the kind of password that a system administrator might choose.

I went off to find someone who might know more, and ran into two of our system administrators, one of whom was the person who had earlier defended the universal back door.

“Do either of you recognize xxxxxx—”



“We use that password on a lot of our systems; why?”

“The student health center account has that as their home directory. It’s publicly available on our LDAP directory.”


Now, mistakes happen. Something like this is bound to happen at least once in a system administrator’s life. That’s why it’s important to make sure that no one password can unlock everything. Fortunately this system password wasn’t the universal password. It’s been several months now, and the “weekend” backdoor is still there.

February 16, 2007: A weekend solution, two months later

We’re implementing a new student portal, and as part of the portal we want a true single sign-on: one that works across systems. We’ve brought in a consultant to assist us; I happened to be there today while the consultant was copying a user from our LDAP authentication system to the portal for test purposes.

“That’s strange. Every user seems to have two password hashes.”


“The second one seems to always be the same hash.”


“That’s scary.”


Yes, our weekend backdoor is still active two months later.

  1. <- Cell phones
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