Long before the commercial success of the Internet, Brian J. Fox invented one of its most widely used tools.
In 1987, Mr. Fox, wrote Bash, short for Bourne-Again Shell, a free piece of software that is now built into more than 70 percent of the machines that connect to the Internet. That includes servers, computers, routers, some mobile phones and even everyday items like refrigerators and cameras.
On Thursday, security experts warned that Bash contained a particularly alarming software bug that could be used to take control of hundreds of millions of machines around the world, potentially including Macintosh computers and smartphones that use the Android operating system.
The bug, named "Shellshock," drew comparisons to the Heartbleed bug that was discovered in a crucial piece of software last spring.
But Shellshock could be a bigger threat. While Heartbleed could be used to do things like steal passwords from a server, Shellshock can be used to take over the entire machine. And Heartbleed went unnoticed for two years and affected an estimated 500,000 machines, but Shellshock was not discovered for 22 years.
Many of the commercial tools that individual users and large corporations depend upon are built on top of programs that are written and maintained by a few unpaid volunteers in what is called the open-source community. That community, along with big companies like Google, adjusts and builds new things on top of older work.
Sometimes there are flaws in that code. And over the years, the flaw becomes part of all sorts of products.
The mantra of open source was perhaps best articulated by Eric S. Raymond, one of the elders of the open-source movement, who wrote in 1997 that "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow." But, in this case, Steven M. Bellovin, a computer science professor at Columbia University, said, those eyeballs are more consumed with new features than quality. "Quality takes work, design, review and testing and those are not nearly as much fun as coding," Mr. Bellovin said. "If the open-source community does not develop those skills, it's going to fall further behind in the quality race."*
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* Attribution to the NYT