Suspect arrested in 5-year-old kernel.org breach

A computer programmer is accused of compromising several Linux Foundation servers in 2011

Linux Tux

Tux, the Linux mascot.

Credit: Larry Ewing and Garrett LeSage via Wikimedia Commons

Five years after a security breach forced the Linux Foundation to take kernel.org offline and to rebuild several of its servers, police have arrested a suspect in the case.

Donald Ryan Austin, a 27-year-old computer programmer from El Portal, Florida, was arrested during a traffic stop on Aug. 28 based on a sealed indictment returned by a federal grand jury in the Northern District of California in June.

Austin is charged with intentionally damaging four protected servers operated by the Linux Foundation and one of its members in 2011. More specifically, the programmer is accused to have installed rootkit and trojan software on the servers in order to steal the credentials of authorized users connecting to them via SSH (Secure Shell).

Austin allegedly accessed the servers using the credentials of a system administrator from the Linux Kernel Organization, a public benefit corporation in charge of distributing the Linux kernel and other open source software.

The indictment identifies the Linux Kernel Organization system administrator whose credentials were abused as J.H. but does not specify how the credentials were stolen in the first place.

J.H. might be John Hawley, known in the community as Warthog9, who at the time of the attack in 2011 was the kernel.org chief administrator. He was the one who announced the breach on the kernel.org users mailing list on Aug. 29, 2011.

The indictment also mentions a member of the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board whose personal email server was allegedly compromised by Austin. He is identified in the indictment as P.A. but is likely Linux developer Hans Peter Anvin, known in the Linux community as HPA. He is mentioned as the owner of one of the affected servers in Hawley's August 2011 announcement.

The affected Linux Foundation servers are identified in the indictment as Odin1, Zeus1, and Pub3, and the rootkit is named Phalanx. This information matches the details that were already publicly known about the breach.

The kernel.org website, home of the Linux kernel, was offline for over a month between late August and early October 2011 as the affected servers were rebuilt.

Austin appeared in a federal court in Miami on Monday and was released on bond Thursday. He is scheduled to appear in court for a new hearing in San Francisco, where the Linux Foundation is based, on Sept. 21. If convicted, he faces a maximum prison sentence of 10 years and a fine of US$250,000.

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