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Date: Mon, 5 Oct 2020 17:29:20 -0400
From: Stephen John Smoogen <>
Subject: Re: major changes if gnu/linux dominates the desktop
 and/or mobile market?

On Mon, 5 Oct 2020 at 16:49, Solar Designer <> wrote:

> Hi all,
> As a moderator I approved all messages in this thread so far, but I am
> unhappy about the quality of both Georgi's message and the replies.
> This is a valid topic, but there's no room in it for trolling (that's
> how Georgi's message came across, even if maybe unintentionally) nor for
> responding only about the presumed trolling.  Just assume good faith and
> post a response that's actually useful to others in here.  I'll try:
> On Mon, Oct 05, 2020 at 03:02:33PM +0300, Georgi Guninski wrote:
> > Are there major security changes needed if
> > gnu/linux dominates the desktop and/or mobile phone
> > markets?
> I'd say yes, major security changes are needed.
On the desktop, major Linux distributions (and by the way *BSDs and
> Solaris are not very different in this respect, I think) when used as
> single-user desktop systems lack security isolation between applications
> of the user.  (And also between the user and root, due to the typical
> recommended use of sudo from the user account.)
I think it would take a lot of 'training' on why this is not wanted and
setting expectations about how one is supposed to use a computer without
that access. It is hard enough trying to explain to the person who wanted
everything containerized for 'better' security that allowing them to ssh
into the container so they can 'debug it' also removes the security that
they wanted.

> This kind of security isolation is something we have on Android, but at
> the price of the user not having full access to (not entirely) their
> device.  The user cannot even have e.g. a file manager app with which
> they'd access all files of other apps.
Then there's the trend towards having a desktop-like Linux system on
> mobile devices again.  Before Android, we had e.g. Maemo and MeeGo.  Now
> we have e.g. Ubuntu Touch, postmarketOS, and Sailfish OS.  As far as I'm
> aware, so far this means lack of isolation between the apps just like we
> have on the desktop.
> We need the best of both worlds - isolation, yet full control.  I guess
> this could be achieved by devices gaining a physical button that would
> need to be pressed at the time a newly installed app is to be granted
> privileges by a component in the system's TCB.  Said component would
> also need to assure the user that it's the only one in control at the
> moment (kind of after a SAK) and that the displayed privileges request
> is truthful and complete, e.g. by lighting a dedicated LED.  You want to
> install an all-powerful file manager?  Just wait for that LED to light
> up, review what privileges would be granted to where, and press that
> button to accept.  Perhaps too cumbersome for typical users.  Maybe an
> alternative approach could be developed where a portion of the
> touchscreen (or a secondary one) would be reserved for interacting with
> the OS TCB.  Perhaps something like MacBook Pro's Touch Bar could be
> used for that purpose - and having that is already a precedent, it's
> just not used for a security purpose yet (or I haven't heard of that).
That would be useful and trusted if the touch bar has a direct path to the
TCB versus being able to be reprogrammed by the OS. It would also be
helpful if there is a way to weigh 'trust' of a system. Each time a person
installs an app like that, the bar turns more red.. at some level it just
goes amber and turns off the need to press the button anymore. Then if you
are asked if Bob's computer is allowed on the computer, you look at the
touch bar and say 'Nooope'.

 This is mainly to try and give users better education about the tradeoffs
versus them just blind clicking [OK] which many of them will do anyway.
Most users don't really have the time or knowledge to know if XYZ app
really needs some control to work. There is no way to know if something is
like driving without a seatbelt, or driving without working brakes. People
may still do either of them but people do it more often if they have no
'feedback' that it can cause problems.

[snipped things that I don't have anything to add to]

> Relaxed file permissions like that may also further weaken some partial
> sandboxes (when a service is running with its dedicated credentials, but
> with retained filesystem access - such as because it needs that).
> Then there are also plenty of other local security risks on typical
> Linux distros, starting with risky data processing by apport and abrt.
> Those would matter more if other issues I mentioned are addressed.
> I might be right or wrong or (most likely) both, but I hope this sets
> the tone for constructive further discussion.
> Alexander

Stephen J Smoogen.

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