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Linux creator explains why a truly secure computing platform will never exist

Published Sep 25th, 2015 1:46PM EDT
Linus Torvalds Quotes

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Twenty-four years ago this month, a Finnish developer with a sharp tongue who’s regarded by some as one of the most influential programmers alive today released version 0.01 of the Linux kernel to the Internet.

Creator Linus Torvalds introduced it by posting a message in the days before its release to a Usenet newsgroup that famously began: “I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu).” Since then, the code base has of course expanded —  from 10,000+ lines of code to millions — and it helps power everything from TVs to tablets to smartphones, routers and more.

Linux serves as the basis for the Android OS, and even Microsoft — once so resistant to Linux the company filmed a parody of “The Matrix” in which they poked fun at it — has come back around. Via a blog post in recent days, Microsoft said Linux is now running some of its offerings for its cloud customers.

BGR recently caught up with Linux creator, who made some waves during his recent keynote appearance at an open source conference in New Zealand in which he offered responses to questions about things like diversity that struck a note of abrasiveness in some corners. “The most important part of open source,” said Torvalds, according to an Ars Technica report, “is that people are allowed to do what they are good at” and “all that [diversity] stuff is just details and not really important.”

You get the same degree of blunt talk that’s not concerned with appearance or anything other than his creation when you email him – because, oh yeah, email is his preferred method of submitting to interviews. He prefers no more than five questions per email that he can answer in between other work.

If you don’t get an answer within 24 hours? Consider it, he says, already at the bottom of his pile.

In his interaction with BGR, he was, no surprise, candid about everything from security and privacy to what the future holds for Linux (“That’s not how I work or think.”) as well as his thoughts on the future of Android, given how deeply embedded Linux is in it.

His answer – Linux is actually not something people should really ever think about.

“Linux is just an enabler – core infrastructure,” he said. “It’s a solid base, but like all good, solid bases, it really is something that should be almost entirely hidden and out of peoples’ minds.”

Speaking at LinuxCon 2015 last month, Torvalds talked about security as something unattainable in a perfect sense, something he expanded on with BGR. He thinks, for example, it’s meaningless to ask what computing platform today is the most secure.

The most secure platform, he offers in response, is something that’s “not actually usable.”

“Unplug the network cable and instantiate draconian measures for physical security,” he said. “You’ll make sure nobody can get in, but you’ll also make sure that nobody actually wants to use the platform. And that may sound like an extreme case, but it’s a very fundamental issue in security. You cannot look at security as something separate.”

Torvalds says he’s butted heads with the security community because they often make a “complete circus” about things and think about things in terms that are too black-and-white.

“Security issues are ‘just’ normal bugs,” he says. “And you cannot separate security from other issues. Any time you try to make things be about just security (like in your question), you’re missing some other part of the equation.

“Look at the current news about automotive security. Obviously cars are much less secure today than they were decades ago, because decades ago you didn’t even have any networking or outside access, so things like the whole OnStar brouhaha couldn’t have happened.  Does that mean that old cars are ‘more secure?’ In one sense, yes. But if those old cars are less usable, then that really doesn’t matter. People are starting to expect things to be connected, and things like remote unlock and start-up are starting to be something people are willing to pay for the convenience. So it depends very much on what your base requirements are for usability and for infrastructure and access.”

A  Bloomberg article  this summer called Torvalds the most influential individual economic force of the past 20 years. As proof, it goes on to say he “unleashed the full power” of the idea of open source software and that billions of devices from appliances to Android smartphones to even rockets run on Linux.

Torvalds today, though, still gives the sense he’s very much the same technologist who wrote in his 2002 book “Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary” — “Have you ever lain back on a warm summer’s night, looking up at the stars, and really wondered why you are here? What is your place in things, and what you are supposed to do with your life? Yeah, well, neither have I.”

It might sound like a flip of the middle finger to the universe, but it’s easily reconciled with the rest of the man. He cares about doing good work, he sweats the details and he doesn’t suffer carelessness or mistakes or sloppy code.

He also swats away a question about Linux’s future.

“I end up caring about the kernel technology being the best possible, and trying to make sure that our process works as well as possible,” he said. “I worry about maintainers doing a good job, about patch flow, about git merges being clean, etc. But I do *not* worry or think about ‘what will we do in five/ten years.’

“Obviously, the whole ‘process works well’ part includes things that are clearly somewhat forward-looking: the code needs to be maintainable, and new features need to be sensible, not just for some current issue but for the future. But that, too, tends to be about being clean and extensible, not a ‘what does the future hold’ kind of issue. I’m a big believer in the notion of get the details right, and the rest will follow.  If the kernel is the best possible technology it can be, and we have a working process for developing and maintaining it, then I don’t think we need to worry about the future.”

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.


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