Worditudinality

Go look up the term rootkit on Wikipedia.  (Go ahead, I’ll wait.)  Lovely entry, isn’t it?  Lots of information.  Trouble is, there’s lots of misinformation, too.

A rootkit is *not* “a program … designed to take fundamental [or] … `root’ access” for a system.  It’s designed to *keep* that access, once you broken into the system and grabbed it.  (And rootkits were around before 1990, etc, but we’ll let that go for the moment.)

Or, at least, it used to be defined that way.  Recently, all kinds of people have been redefining what rootkit means, to the point that it may no longer mean anything.
Wikipedia is a wonderful tool, and the English encyclopedia made with it is a wonderful resource.  For the most part.  But when you get to the real specialty areas you start running into problems.  As John Lawton has pointed out, the irony of the information age is that it has given new respectability to uninformed opinion.  And Wikipedia is susceptible to that problem.

Now the Wikipedia people are aware of the problem, and have provided ways to address it.  There is the fact that anyone can correct errors, when errors have been made.  There are technical controls in terms of limits on changes.  There are administrative controls in the granting of elevated privileges to editors.  But occasionally you get a breakdown, such as the fact that an editor can be, him or herself, in error.  And then you get entries like the one for rootkit.

But Wikipedia is not what I really want to talk about.  I want to talk about words.  Specifically, the jargon that we use, and create, in technical fields, and in the field of information security in particular.  Because language is kind of like a giant Wikipedia, where anyone at all can make an entry.  And anyone at all can try and modify that entry.

Lots of people like to talk about computer security.  It’s quite likely that more people like to talk about security than actually *do* anything about security.  So it’s not hard to see that a lot of the people who are talking, and writing, about security often talk about things that, well, they are not quite certain about.

If I say that Alan Turing was a homosexual, I might be right, or I might be wrong.  But it would be fairly easy to check whether I was right or wrong.  However, if I say that a Turing Machine is a universal computer because it can be implemented on any computer, I am making a different kind of assertion, and one that it harder to check.  Someone who hears me say that, and knows that I’m wrong, might not challenge it immediately, because it’s partly right, and the error I’ve made may not be important to the point that I’m making.  But the people who hear me make that statement, and who do not know why the statement is in error, are probably going to assume and generate various kinds of mistaken ideas about Turing machines.  And if I make the statement frequently enough, and in enough different places, it starts being taken as true.  And eventually we’ll have people saying that a universal computer is any entity that can be implemented on any platform.  Which had nothing at all to do with what Turing was doing and proving.

So it is with a number of the specialized terms that we have been using in infosec.  A lot of people are getting hold of them, and using them in sloppy ways.  Now, a great many people say that language is living, and you have to make allowances for that growth.  Fair enough: much of the vocabulary that we use every day in computer security didn’t even exist fifty years ago, so it would be hard to argue the point.  However, if the terms can be changed by anyone, at any time, then they lose meaning.  If I use the word virus to mean one thing, and you use it to mean something quite different, then we aren’t going to come to any agreement.  We can’t communicate.  And, in all of these rapidly changing technical fields, communication is vitally important.

So, in the blort, I just want to regrify you to smetnicate all forms of antrifact.

Yelth you for your fesculiant.

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  • http://anti-virus-rants.blogspot.com kurt wismer

    i’m in full agreement with your point on jargon, but i’d like to pick your brain a bit about the term rootkit…

    i have for some time considered this document (http://www.cs.wright.edu/people/faculty/pmateti/Courses/499/Fortification/obrien.html) to be referring to the first item to be referred to as a rootkit (though not necessarily the first item to meet the requirements of the classification)… do you have any citations to earlier instances (ie. prior to ’94/’96) of the term rootkit being used as either a name or a classification?

  • http://web.comlab.ox.ac.uk/oucl/work/toby.murray/ Toby

    If you complain abotu the Wikipedia rootkit article without taking the time to correct it, given that you are someone with techincal expertise in this area, you are part of the problem you’re describing; not it’s solution.

  • http://anti-virus-rants.blogspot.com kurt wismer

    toby, have you ever read jaron lanier’s article on digital maoism (http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/lanier06/lanier06_index.html)…

    don’t assume that just because some says wikipedia is wrong that that person is in a position to fix it…

  • Eponymous

    The wiki model presumes that general social wisdom will correct errors and average information toward correctness. That’s all well and good when you have a large number of people who truly understand something, but when you get into specialized knowledge, those WITH it are typically more scarce and in demand and less likely to idle their time away writing and rewriting pages for a free public encyclopaedia, particularly if they have to deal with their work being constantly reverted or contested by sophomoric dullards. The only part of wiki not coated in grains of salt, is the offsite references.

  • http://vielmetti.typepad.com Edward Vielmetti

    A pragmatic approach to systematic errors in one wiki is to create a second wiki with a different editorial team, a different scope of coverage, and different text on the page.

    Your alternate wiki universe does not have to have the same set of sophomoric dullards in it that you complain about (however it may be up to you to do a lot of typing).