= B =
back door n.
[common] A hole in the security of a
system deliberately left in place by designers or maintainers. The
motivation for such holes is not always sinister; some operating
systems, for example, come out of the box with privileged accounts
intended for use by field service technicians or the vendor's
maintenance programmers. Syn. trap door; may also be called a
`wormhole'. See also iron box, cracker, worm,
Historically, back doors have often lurked in systems longer than
anyone expected or planned, and a few have become widely known.
Ken Thompson's 1983 Turing Award lecture to the ACM admitted the
existence of a back door in early Unix versions that may have
qualified as the most fiendishly clever security hack of all time.
In this scheme, the C compiler contained code that would recognize
when the `login' command was being recompiled and insert some
code recognizing a password chosen by Thompson, giving him entry to
the system whether or not an account had been created for him.
Normally such a back door could be removed by removing it from the
source code for the compiler and recompiling the compiler. But to
recompile the compiler, you have to use the compiler -- so
Thompson also arranged that the compiler would recognize when
it was compiling a version of itself, and insert into the
recompiled compiler the code to insert into the recompiled
`login' the code to allow Thompson entry -- and, of course, the
code to recognize itself and do the whole thing again the next time
around! And having done this once, he was then able to recompile
the compiler from the original sources; the hack perpetuated itself
invisibly, leaving the back door in place and active but with no
trace in the sources.
The Turing lecture that suggested this truly moby hack was later
published as "Reflections on Trusting Trust",
"Communications of the ACM 27", 8 (August 1984), pp. 761-763
(text available at http://www.acm.org/classics). Ken
Thompson has since confirmed that this hack was implemented and
that the Trojan Horse code did appear in the login binary of a Unix
Support group machine. Ken says the crocked compiler was never
distributed. Your editor has heard two separate reports that
suggest that the crocked login did make it out of Bell Labs,
notably to BBN, and that it enabled at least one late-night login
across the network by someone using the login name `kt'.
--The Jargon File version 4.3.1, ed. ESR, autonoded by rescdsk.