More On Private Internet Access

A few quick follow-up thoughts from my original review. First, problems I haven’t solved yet:

  • I forgot an important problem in my first blog: email. Evolution is borderline unusable with PIA. My personal GMail account usually works reliably, but my Google Apps school GMail account (which you’d think would function the same) and my Igalia email both time out with the error “Source doesn’t support prompt for credentials”. That’s Evolution’s generic error that it throws up whenever the mail server is taking too long to respond. So what’s going on here? I can check my email via webmail as a workaround in the meantime, but this is really terrible.
  • Still no solution for the first attempt to connect always failing. That’s really annoying! I was expecting some insight (or at least guesses) as to what might be going wrong here, but nobody has suggested anything about this yet. Update: The problem is that I had selected “Make available to other users” but “Store the password only for this user”, which results in the first attempt to connect always failing, because it’s performed by the gdm user. The fix is to store the password for all users.

Some solutions and answers to problems from my original post:

  • Jonh Wendell suggested using TCP instead of UDP to connect to PIA. I’ve been trying this and so far have not noticed a single instance of connection loss. So I think my biggest problem has been solved. Yay!
  • Dan LaManna posted a link to vpnfailsafe. I’m probably not going to use this since it’s a long shell script that I don’t understand, and since my connection drop problems seem to be solved now that I’ve switched to TCP, but it looks like it’d probably be a good solution to its problem. Real shame this is not built in to NetworkManager already.
  • Christel Dahlskjaer has confirmed that freenode requires NickServ/SASL authentication to use via PIA. This isn’t acceptable for me, since Empathy can’t handle it well, so I’m probably just going to stop using freenode for the most part. The only room I was ever really active in was #webkitgtk+, but in practice our use of that room is basically redundant with #epiphany on GIMPNet (where you’ll still find me, and which would be a better location for a WebKitGTK+ channel anyway), so I don’t think I’ll miss it. I’ve been looking to reduce the number of IRC rooms I join for a long time anyway. The only thing I really need freenode for is Fedora Workstation meetings, which I can attend via a web gateway. (Update: I realized that I am going to miss #webkit as well. Hmm, this could be a problem….)

So my biggest issue now is that I can’t use my email. That’s pretty surprising, as I wouldn’t think using a VPN would make any difference for that. I don’t actually care about my Google Apps account, but I need to be able to read my Igalia mail in Evolution. (Note: My actual IP seems to leak in my email headers, but I don’t care. My name is on my emails anyway. I just care that it works.)

On Private Internet Access

I’m soon going to be moving to Charter Communications territory, but I don’t trust Charter and don’t want it to keep records of all the websites that I visit.  The natural solution is to use a VPN, and the natural first choice is Private Internet Access, since it’s a huge financial supporter of GNOME, and I haven’t heard anybody complain about problems with using it. This will be a short review of my experience.

The service is not free. That’s actually good: it means I’m the customer, not the product. Cost is $40 per year if you pay a year in advance, but you should probably start with the $7/month plan until you’re sure you’re happy with the service and will be keeping it long-term. Anyway, this is a pretty reasonable price that I’m happy to pay.

The website is fairly good. It makes it easy to buy or discontinue service, so there are no pricing surprises, and there’s a pretty good library of support documentation. Unfortunately some of the claims on the website seem to be — arguably — borderline deceptive. A VPN service provides excellent anonymity against your ISP, but relying on a VPN would be a pretty bad idea if your adversary is the government (it can perform a traffic correlation attack) or advertising companies (they know your screen resolution, the performance characteristics of your graphics card, and until recently the rate your battery drains…). But my adversary is going to be Charter Communications, so a VPN is the perfect solution for me. If you need real anonymity, you absolutely must use the Tor Browser Bundle, but that’s going to make your life harder, and I don’t want my life to be harder, so I’ll stick with a VPN.

Private Internet Access provides an Ubuntu app, but I’m going to ignore that because (a) I use Fedora, not Ubuntu, and (b) why on Earth would you want a separate desktop app for your VPN when OpenVPN integration is already built-in on Ubuntu and all modern Linux desktops? Unfortunately the documentation provided by Private Internet Access is not really sufficient — they have a script to set it up automatically, but it’s really designed for Ubuntu and doesn’t work on Fedora — so configuration was slightly challenging.  I wound up following instructions on some third-party website, which I have long since forgotten. There are many third-party resources for how to configure PIA on Linux, which you might think is good but actually indicates a problem with the official documentation in my opinion. So there is some room for improvement here. PIA should ditch the pointless desktop app and improve its documentation for configuring OpenVPN via NetworkManager. (Update: After publishing this post, I discovered this article. Seems the installation script now supports for Fedora/RHEL and Arch Linux. So my claim that it only works on Ubuntu is outdated.) But anyway, once you get it configured properly with NetworkManager, it works: no need to install anything (besides the OpenVPN certificate, of course).

Well, it mostly works. Now, I have two main requirements to ensure that Charter can’t keep records of the websites I’m visiting:

  • NetworkManager must autoconnect to the VPN, so I don’t have to do it manually.
  • NetworkManager must reconnect to the VPN service if connection drops, and must never send any data if the VPN is off.

The first requirement was hard to solve, and I still don’t have it working perfectly. There is no GUI configuration option for this in gnome-control-center, but I eventually found it in nm-connection-editor: you have to edit your normal non-VPN connection, which has a preference to select a VPN to connect to automatically. So we should improve that in gnome-control-center. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work at all the first time your computer connects to the internet after it’s booted. Each time I boot my computer, I’m greeted with a Connection Failed notification on the login screen. This is probably a NetworkManager bug. Anyway, after logging in, I just have to manually connect once, then it works.

As for the next requirement, I’ve given up. My PIA connection is routinely lost about once every 30-45 minutes, usually when watching YouTube or otherwise using a lot of data. This is most likely a problem with PIA’s service, but I don’t know that: it could just as well be my current ISP cutting the connection, or maybe even some client-side NetworkManager bug. Anyway, I could live with brief connection interruptions, but when this happens, I lose connection entirely for about a minute — too long — and then the VPN times out and NetworkManager switches back to sending all the data outside the VPN. That’s totally unacceptable. To be clear, sending data outside the VPN is surely a NetworkManager problem, not a PIA problem, but it needs to be fixed for me to be comfortable using PIA. I see some discussion about that on this third-party GitHub issue, but the “solution” there is to stop using NetworkManager, which I’m not going to do. This is probably one of the reasons why PIA provides a desktop app — I think the PIA app doesn’t suffer from this issue? — but like I said, I’m not going to use a third-party OpenVPN app instead of the undoubtedly-nicer support that’s built in to GNOME.

Another problem is that I can’t connect to Freenode when I’m using the VPN. GIMPNet works fine, so it’s not a problem with IRC in general: Freenode is specifically blocking Private Internet Access users. This seems very strange, since Freenode has a bunch of prominent advertising for PIA all over its website. I could understand blocking PIA if there are too many users abusing it, but not if you’re going to simultaneously advertise it.

I also cannot access Igalia’s SIP service when using PIA. I need that too, but that’s probably something we have to fix on our end.

So I’m not sure what to do now. We have two NetworkManager bugs and a problem with Freenode. Eventually I’ll drop Empathy in favor of Matrix or some other IRC client where registering with NickServ is not a terrible mistake (presumably they’re only blocking unregistered users?), so the Freenode issue seems less-important. I think I’d be willing to just stop visiting Freenode if required to use PIA, anyway. But those NetworkManager issues are blockers to me. With those unfixed, I’m not sure if I’m going to renew my PIA subscription or not. I would definitely renew if someone were to fix those two issues. The ideal solution would be for PIA to adopt NetworkManager’s OpenVPN plugin and ensure it gets cared for, but if not, maybe someone else will fix it?

Update: See part two for how to solve some of these problems.

On “Insights On Companies/Developers Behind Wayland”

I recently read a peer-reviewed academic paper from a couple years ago that analyzed the contributions of different companies to WebKit. The authors didn’t bother to account for individuals using non-corporate email addresses, since that’s hard work, and did not realize that most Google developers contribute to the project using email addresses, resulting in Google’s contributions being massively undercounted. There were other serious mistakes in the paper too, but this is the one that came to mind when reading The FOSS Post’s article Insights On Companies/Developers Behind Wayland.

The FOSS Post didn’t bother to account for where some big developers work, incorrectly trusting that all employees use corporate emails when contributing to open source projects. It contains some interesting claims, like “Clearly, Samsung and the individual ‘Bryce Harrington’ are almost doing the same work [on Wayland build tools]” and “75% of the code [in libinput] is written by Peter Hutterer. Followed by 10% for a group of individuals and 5% by Red Hat.” I have only very passing familiarity with the Wayland project, but I do know that Bryce works for Samsung, and that Peter works for Red Hat. Suggesting that Red Hat contributed only 5% of the code to libinput, when the real number looks more like 80%, does not speak well of the quality of The FOSS Post’s insights. Also notably, Kristian Høgsberg’s massive contributions to the  project were not classed as contributions from Intel, where he was working at the time.

You don’t have to be an expert on the community to take the time to account for people not using corporate emails before publishing an analysis. This is why it’s important to understand the community you are analyzing at least somewhat before publishing such “insights.”

Update: The FOSS Post’s article was completely updated with new charts to address this issue.

Update #2: Jonas reports in the comments below that the charts are still completely wrong.

An Update on WebKit Security Updates

One year ago, I wrote a blog post about WebKit security updates that attracted a fair amount of attention at the time. For a full understanding of the situation, you really have to read the whole thing, but the most important point was that, while WebKitGTK+ — one of the two WebKit ports present in Linux distributions — was regularly releasing upstream security updates, most Linux distributions were ignoring the updates, leaving users vulnerable to various security bugs, mainly of the remote code execution variety. At the time of that blog post, only Arch Linux and Fedora were regularly releasing WebKitGTK+ updates, and Fedora had only very recently begun doing so comprehensively.

Progress report!

So how have things changed in the past year? The best way to see this is to look at the versions of WebKitGTK+ in currently-supported distributions. The latest version of WebKitGTK+ is 2.14.3, which fixes 13 known security issues present in 2.14.2. Do users of the most popular Linux operating systems have the fixes?

  • Fedora users are good. Both Fedora 24 and Fedora 25 have the latest version, 2.14.3.
  • If you use Arch, you know you always have the latest stuff.
  • Ubuntu users rejoice: 2.14.3 updates have been released to users of both Ubuntu 16.04 and 16.10. I’m very  pleased that Ubuntu has decided to take my advice and make an exception to its usual stable release update policy to ensure its users have a secure version of WebKit. I can’t give Ubuntu an A grade here because the updates tend to lag behind upstream by several months, but slow updates are much better than no updates, so this is undoubtedly a huge improvement. (Anyway, it’s hardly a bad idea to be cautious when releasing a big update with high regression potential, as is unfortunately the case with even stable WebKit updates.) But if you use the still-supported Ubuntu 14.04 or 12.04, be aware that these versions of Ubuntu cannot ever update WebKit, as it would require a switch to WebKit2, a major API change.
  • Debian does not update WebKit as a matter of policy. The latest release, Debian 8.7, is still shipping WebKitGTK+ 2.6.2. I count 184 known vulnerabilities affecting it, though that’s an overcount as we did not exclude some Mac-specific security issues from the 2015 security advisories. (Shipping ancient WebKit is not just a security problem, but a user experience problem too. Actually attempting to browse the web with WebKitGTK+ 2.6.2 is quite painful due to bugs that were fixed years ago, so please don’t try to pretend it’s “stable.”) Note that a secure version of WebKitGTK+ is available for those in the know via the backports repository, but this does no good for users who trust Debian to provide them with security updates by default without requiring difficult configuration. Debian testing users also currently have the latest 2.14.3, but you will need to switch to Debian unstable to get security updates for the foreseeable future, as testing is about to freeze.
  • For openSUSE users, only Tumbleweed has the latest version of WebKit. The current stable release, Leap 42.2, ships with WebKitGTK+ 2.12.5, which is coincidentally affected by exactly 42 known vulnerabilities. (I swear I am not making this up.) The previous stable release, Leap 42.1, originally released with WebKitGTK+ 2.8.5 and later updated to 2.10.7, but never past that. It is affected by 65 known vulnerabilities. (Note: I have to disclose that I told openSUSE I’d try to help out with that update, but never actually did. Sorry!) openSUSE has it a bit harder than other distros because it has decided to use SUSE Linux Enterprise as the source for its GCC package, meaning it’s stuck on GCC 4.8 for the foreseeable future, while WebKit requires GCC 4.9. Still, this is only a build-time requirement; it’s not as if it would be impossible to build with Clang instead, or a custom version of GCC. I would expect WebKit updates to be provided to both currently-supported Leap releases.
  • Gentoo has the latest version of WebKitGTK+, but only in testing. The latest version marked stable is 2.12.5, so this is a serious problem if you’re following Gentoo’s stable channel.
  • Mageia has been updating WebKit and released a couple security advisories for Mageia 5, but it seems to be stuck on 2.12.4, which is disappointing, especially since 2.12.5 is a fairly small update. The problem here does not seem to be lack of upstream release monitoring, but rather lack of manpower to prepare the updates, which is a typical problem for small distros.
  • The enterprise distros from Red Hat, Oracle, and SUSE do not provide any WebKit security updates. They suffer from the same problem as Ubuntu’s old LTS releases: the WebKit2 API change  makes updating impossible. See my previous blog post if you want to learn more about that. (SUSE actually does have WebKitGTK+ 2.12.5 as well, but… yeah, 42.)

So results are clearly mixed. Some distros are clearly doing well, and others are struggling, and Debian is Debian. Still, the situation on the whole seems to be much better than it was one year ago. Most importantly, Ubuntu’s decision to start updating WebKitGTK+ means the vast majority of Linux users are now receiving updates. Thanks Ubuntu!

To arrive at the above vulnerability totals, I just counted up the CVEs listed in WebKitGTK+ Security Advisories, so please do double-check my counting if you want. The upstream security advisories themselves are worth mentioning, as we have only been releasing these for two years now, and the first year was pretty rough when we lost our original security contact at Apple shortly after releasing the first advisory: you can see there were only two advisories in all of 2015, and the second one was huge as a result of that. But 2016 seems to have gone decently well. WebKitGTK+ has normally been releasing most security fixes even before Apple does, though the actual advisories and a few remaining fixes normally lag behind Apple by roughly a month or so. Big thanks to my colleagues at Igalia who handle this work.

Challenges ahead

There are still some pretty big problems remaining!

First of all, the distributions that still aren’t releasing regular WebKit updates should start doing so.

Next, we have to do something about QtWebKit, the other big WebKit port for Linux, which stopped receiving security updates in 2013 after the Qt developers decided to abandon the project. The good news is that Konstantin Tokarev has been working on a QtWebKit fork based on WebKitGTK+ 2.12, which is almost (but not quite yet) ready for use in distributions. I hope we are able to switch to use his project as the new upstream for QtWebKit in Fedora 26, and I’d encourage other distros to follow along. WebKitGTK+ 2.12 does still suffer from those 42 vulnerabilities, but this will be a big improvement nevertheless and an important stepping stone for a subsequent release based on the latest version of WebKitGTK+. (Yes, QtWebKit will be a downstream of WebKitGTK+. No, it will not use GTK+. It will work out fine!)

It’s also time to get rid of the old WebKitGTK+ 2.4 (“WebKit1”), which all distributions currently parallel-install alongside modern WebKitGTK+ (“WebKit2”). It’s very unfortunate that a large number of applications still depend on WebKitGTK+ 2.4 — I count 41 such packages in Fedora — but this old version of WebKit is affected by over 200 known vulnerabilities and really has to go sooner rather than later. We’ve agreed to remove WebKitGTK+ 2.4 and its dependencies from Fedora rawhide right after Fedora 26 is branched next month, so they will no longer be present in Fedora 27 (targeted for release in November). That’s bad for you if you use any of the affected applications, but fortunately most of the remaining unported applications are not very important or well-known; the most notable ones that are unlikely to be ported in time are GnuCash (which won’t make our deadline) and Empathy (which is ported in git master, but is not currently in a  releasable state; help wanted!). I encourage other distributions to follow our lead here in setting a deadline for removal. The alternative is to leave WebKitGTK+ 2.4 around until no more applications are using it. Distros that opt for this approach should be prepared to be stuck with it for the next 10 years or so, as the remaining applications are realistically not likely to be ported so long as zombie WebKitGTK+ 2.4 remains available.

These are surmountable problems, but they require action by downstream distributions. No doubt some distributions will be more successful than others, but hopefully many distributions will be able to fix these problems in 2017. We shall see!

GNOME 3.22 core apps

GNOME 3.22 is scheduled to be released today. Along with this release come brand new recommendations for distributions on which applications should be installed by default, and which applications should not. I’ve been steadily working on these since joining the release team earlier this year, and I’m quite pleased with the result.

When a user installs a distribution and boots it for the first time, his or her first impression of the system will be influenced by the quality of the applications that are installed by default. Selecting the right set of default applications is critical to achieving a quality user experience. Installing redundant or overly technical applications by default can leave users confused and frustrated with the distribution. Historically, distributions have selected wildly different sets of default applications. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it’s clear that some distributions have done a much better job of this than others. For instance, a default install of Debian 8 with the GNOME desktop includes two different chess applications, GNOME Chess and XBoard. Debian fails here: these applications are redundant, for starters, and the later app looks like an ancient Windows 95 application that’s clearly out of place with the rest of the system. It’s pretty clear that nobody is auditing the set of default applications here, as I doubt anyone would have intentionally included Xboard; it turns out that XBoard gets pulled in by Recommends via an obscure chess engine that’s pulled in by another Recommends from GNOME Chess, so I presume this is just an accident that nobody has ever cared to fix. Debian is far from the only offender here; you can find similar issues in most distributions. This is the motivation for providing the new default app recommendations.

Most distributions will probably ignore these, continue to select default apps on their own, and continue to do so badly. However, many distributions also strive to provide a pure, vanilla GNOME experience out-of-the-box. Such distributions are the target audience for the new default app guidelines. Fedora Workstation has already adopted them as the basis for selecting which apps will be present by default, and the result is a cleaner out-of-the-box experience.

Update: I want to be clear that these guidelines are not appropriate for all distros. Most distros are not interested in providing a “pure GNOME experience.” Distros should judge for themselves if these guidelines are relevant to them.


The canonical source of these classifications is maintained in JHBuild, but that’s not very readable, so I’ll list them out here. The guidelines are as follows:

  • Applications classified as core are intended to be installed by default. Distributions should only claim to provide a vanilla GNOME experience if all such applications are included out-of-the-box.
  • Applications classified as extra are NOT intended to be installed by default. Distributions should not claim to provide a vanilla GNOME experience if any such applications are included out-of-the-box.
  • Applications classified as Incubator are somewhere in between. Incubator is a classification for applications that are designed to be core apps, but which have not yet reached a high enough level of quality that we can move them to core and recommend they be installed by default. If you’re looking for somewhere to help out in GNOME, the apps marked Incubator would be good places to start.

Core apps

Distributions that want to provide a pure GNOME experience MUST include all of the following apps by default:

  • Archive Manager (File Roller)
  • Boxes
  • Calculator
  • Calendar
  • Characters (gnome-characters, not gucharmap)
  • Cheese
  • Clocks
  • Contacts
  • Disk Usage Analyzer (Baobab)
  • Disks
  • Document Viewer (Evince)
  • Documents
  • Files (Nautilus)
  • Font Viewer
  • Help (Yelp)
  • Image Viewer (Eye of GNOME)
  • Logs (gnome-logs, not gnome-system-log)
  • Maps
  • Photos
  • Screenshot
  • Software
  • System Monitor
  • Terminal
  • Text Editor (gedit)
  • Videos (Totem)
  • Weather
  • Web (Epiphany)

Notice that all core apps present generic names (though it’s somewhat debatable if Cheese qualifies as a generic name, I think it sounds better than alternatives like Photo Booth). They all also (more or less) follow the GNOME Human Interface Guidelines.

The list of core apps is not set in stone. For example, if Photos or Documents eventually learn to provide good file previews, we wouldn’t need Image Viewer or Document Viewer anymore. And now that Files has native support for compressed archives (new in 3.22!), we may not need Archive Manager much longer.

Currently, about half of these applications are arbitrarily marked as “system” applications in Software, and are impossible to remove. We’ve received complaints about this and are mostly agreed that it should be possible to remove all but the most critical core applications (e.g. allowing users to remove Software itself would clearly be problematic). Unfortunately this didn’t get fixed in time for GNOME 3.22, so we will need to work on improving this situation for GNOME 3.24.


Distributions that want to provide a pure GNOME experience REALLY SHOULD NOT include any of the following apps by default:

  • Dictionary
  • Music
  • Notes (Bijiben)
  • Passwords and Keys (Seahorse)

We think these apps are generally useful and should be in core; they’re just not good enough yet. Please help us improve them.

These are not the only apps that we would like to include in core, but they are the only ones that both (a) actually exist and (b) have actual releases. Take a look at our designs for core apps if you’re interested in working on something new.

Extra apps

Distributions that want to provide a pure GNOME experience REALLY SHOULD NOT include any of the following apps by default:

  • Accerciser
  • Builder
  • dconf Editor
  • Devhelp
  • Empathy
  • Evolution
  • Hex Editor (ghex)
  • gitg
  • Glade
  • Multi Writer
  • Nemiver
  • Network Tools (gnome-nettool)
  • Polari
  • Sound Recorder
  • To Do
  • Tweak Tool
  • Vinagre

Not listed are Shotwell, Rhythmbox, or other applications hosted on that are not (or are no longer) part of official GNOME releases. These applications REALLY SHOULD NOT be included either.

Note that the inclusion of applications in core versus extra is not a quality judgment: that’s what Incubator is for. Rather, we  classify apps as extra when we do not believe they would be beneficial to the out-of-the-box user experience. For instance, even though Evolution is (in my opinion) the highest-quality desktop mail client that exists today, it can be very difficult to configure, the user interface is large and unintuitive, and most users would probably be better served by webmail. Some applications listed here are special purpose tools that are probably not generally useful to the typical user (like Sound Recorder). Other applications, like Builder, are here because they are developer tools, and developer tools are inherently extremely confusing to nontechnical users. (Update: I originally used Polari instead of Builder as the developer tool example in the previous sentence. It was a bad example.)


What about games? It’s OK to install a couple of the higher-quality GNOME games by default, but none are necessary, and it doesn’t make sense to include too many, since they vary in quality. For instance, Fedora Workstation does not include any games, but Ubuntu installs GNOME Mahjongg, GNOME Mines, and GNOME Sudoku. This is harmless, and it seems like a good list. I might add GNOME Chess, or perhaps GNOME Taquin. I’ve omitted games from the list of extra apps up above, as they’re not my focus here.

Third party applications

It’s OK to include a few third-party, non-GNOME applications by default, but they should be kept to a reasonable minimum. For example Fedora Workstation includes Firefox (instead of Epiphany), Problem Reporting (ABRT), SELinux Troubleshooter, Shotwell (instead of GNOME Photos), Rhythmbox, and LibreOffice Calc, Draw, Impress, and Writer. Note that LibreOffice Base is not included here, because it’s not reasonable to include a database management tool on systems designed for nontechnical users. The LibreOffice start center is also not included, because it’s not an application.

Summing up

Distributions, consider following our recommendations when deciding what should be installed by default. Other distributions should feel encouraged to use these classifications as the basis for downstream package groups. At the very least, distributions should audit their set of default applications and decide for themselves if they are appropriate. A few distributions have some horrendous technical stuff visible in the overview by default; Fedora Workstation shows it does not have to be this way.

Wayland by default in Fedora 25?

I’ve noticed various reports that Fedora has decided to switch to Wayland by default in Fedora 25. It’s true that the alpha release will default to Wayland, but these reports have misunderstood an authorization from FESCo to proceed with the change as a final decision. This authorization corrects a bureaucratic mistake: FESCo previously authorized the change for Fedora 24, but the Workstation working group decided to defer the change to Fedora 25, then forgot to request authorization again for Fedora 25 as required. An objection was raised on the grounds that the proper change procedure was not followed, so to sidestep this objection we decided to request permission again from FESCo, which granted the request. Authorization to proceed with the change does not mean the decision to proceed has been made; the change could still be deferred, just as it was for Fedora 24.

Wayland by default for Fedora 25 is certainly the goal, and based on the current quality of our Wayland desktop, there’s a very good chance it will be reached. I expect the call will be made very soon. Stay tuned.

Positive progress on WebKitGTK+ security updates

I previously reported that, although WebKitGTK+ releases regular upstream security updates, most Linux distributions are not taking the updates. At the time, only Arch Linux and Fedora were reliably releasing our security updates. So I’m quite pleased that openSUSE recently released a WebKitGTK+ security update, and then Mageia did too. Gentoo currently has an update in the works. It remains to be seen if these distros regularly follow up on updates (expect a follow-up post on this in a few months), but, optimistically, you now have several independent distros to choose from to get an updated version WebKitGTK+, plus any distros that regularly receive updates directly from these distros.

Unfortunately, not all is well yet. It’s still not safe to use WebKitGTK+ on the latest releases of Debian or Ubuntu, or on derivatives like Linux Mint, elementary OS, or Raspbian. (Raspbian is notable because it uses an ancient, insecure version of Epiphany as its default web browser, and Raspberry Pis are kind of popular.)

And of course, no distribution has been able to get rid of old, insecure WebKitGTK+ 2.4 compatibility packages, so many applications on distributions that do provide security updates for modern WebKitGTK+ will still be insecure. (Don’t be fooled by the recent WebKitGTK+ 2.4.10 update; it contains only a few security fixes that were easy to backport, and was spurred by the need to add GTK+ 3.20 compatibility. It is still not safe to use.) Nor have distributions managed to remove QtWebKit, which is also old and insecure. You still need to check individual applications to see if they are running safe versions of WebKit.

But at least there are now several distros providing WebKitGTK+ security updates. That’s good.

Special thanks to Apple and to my colleagues at Igalia for their work on the security advisories that motivate these updates.

Do you trust this package?

Your distribution’s package manager probably uses GPG signature checking to provide an extremely strong guarantee that the software packages you download have not been maliciously modified by a man in the middle (MITM) attacker when traveling over the Internet from your distribution to you. Smaller distros might have no such infrastructure in place (these distros are not safe to use), but for most major distros, a MITM attack between your distribution and your computer would be very difficult to pull off once your distribution has been installed. (Installing a distribution for the first time is another matter.)

But what guarantee is there that no MITM attacker compromised the tarballs when they were downloaded from upstream by a distro package maintainer? If you think distro package maintainers bother with silly things like GPG signature checking when downloading tarballs, then I regret to inform you that Santa is not real, and your old pet is not on vacation, it is dead.

HTTPS is far from perfect, but it’s much better than no HTTPS, and it is the only effective way to secure packages between upstreams and distributions. Now for an easy game: find an important free software package that is distributed upstream without using HTTPS. Don’t bother with small desktop software either, focus on big name stuff. You have a one minute time limit, because this game would be too easy otherwise. Ready, set, go.

Done? Think about how many different ways exist for an attacker to insert arbitrary code into the tarball you found. HTTPS makes these attacks far more difficult. Webmasters, please take a few minutes to secure your site with HTTPS and HSTS.

Do you trust this application?

Much of the software you use is riddled with security vulnerabilities. Anyone who reads Matthew Garrett knows that most proprietary software is a lost cause. Some Linux advocates claim that free software is more secure than proprietary software, but it’s an open secret that tons of popular desktop Linux applications have many known, unfixed vulnerabilities. I rarely see anybody discuss this, as if it’s taboo, but it’s been obvious to me for a long time.

Usually vulnerabilities go unreported simply because nobody cares to look. Here’s an easy game: pick any application that makes HTTP connections — anything stuck on an old version of WebKit is a good place to start — and look for the following basic vulnerabilities:

  • Failure to use TLS when required (GNOME Music, GNOME Weather; note these are the only apps I mention here that do not use WebKit). This means the application has no security.
  • Failure to perform TLS certificate verification (Shotwell and Pantheon Photos). This means the application has no security against active attackers.
  • Failure to perform TLS certificate verification on subresources (Midori and XombreroLiferea). As sites usually send JavaScript in subresources, this means active attackers can get total control of the page by changing the script, without being detected (update: provided JavaScript is enabled). (Regrettably, Epiphany prior to 3.14.0 was also affected by this issue.)
  • Failure to perform TLS certificate verification before sending HTTP headers (private Midori bugBanshee). This leaks secure cookies, usually allowing attackers full access to your user account on a website. It also leaks the page you’re visiting, which HTTPS is supposed to keep private. (Update: Regrettably, Epiphany prior to 3.14.0 was affected by this issue. Also, the WebKit 2 API in WebKitGTK+ prior to 2.6.6, CVE-2015-2330.)

Except where noted, the latest release of all of the applications listed above are still vulnerable at the time of this writing, even though almost all of these bugs were reported long ago. With the exception of Shotwell, nobody has fixed any of these issues. Perhaps nobody working on the project cares to fix it, or perhaps nobody working on the project has the time or expertise to fix it, or perhaps nobody is working on the project anymore at all. This is all common in free software.

In the case of Shotwell, the issue has been fixed in git, but it might never be released because nobody works on Shotwell anymore. I informed distributors of the Shotwell vulnerability three months ago via the GNOME distributor list, our official mechanism for communicating with distributions, and advised them to update to a git snapshot. Most distributions ignored it. This is completely typical; to my knowledge, the stable releases of all Linux distributions except Fedora are still vulnerable.

If you want to play the above game, it should be very easy for you to add to my list by checking only popular desktop software. A good place to start would be to check if Liferea or Xombrero (supposedly a security-focused browser) perform TLS certificate verification before sending HTTP headers, or if Banshee performs verification on subresources, on the principle that vulnerable applications probably have other related vulnerabilities. (I did not bother to check.)

On a related note, many applications use insecure dependencies. Tons of popular GTK+ applications are stuck on an old, deprecated version of WebKitGTK+, for example. Many popular KDE applications use QtWebKit, which is old and deprecated. These deprecated versions of WebKit suffer from well over 100 remote code execution vulnerabilities fixed upstream that will probably never be backported. (100 is a lowball estimate; I would be unsurprised if the real number for QtWebKit was much, much higher.)

I do not claim that proprietary software is generally more secure than free software, because that is absolutely not true. Proprietary software vendors, including big name corporations that you might think would know better, are still churning out consumer products based on QtWebKit, for example. (This is unethical, but most proprietary software vendors do not care about security.) Not that it matters too much, as proprietary software vendors rarely provide comprehensive security updates anyway. (If your Android phone still gets updates, guess what: they’re superficial.) A few prominent proprietary software vendors really do care about security and do good work to keep their users safe, but they are rare exceptions, not the rule.

It’s a shame we’re not able to do better with free software.

Do you trust this website?

TLS certificate validation errors are much less common on today’s Internet than they used to be, but you can still expect to run into them from time to time. Thanks to a decade of poor user interface decisions by web browsers (only very recently fixed in major browsers), users do not understand TLS and think it’s OK to bypass certificate warnings if they trust the site in question.

This is completely backwards. You should only bypass the warning if you do not trust the site.

The TLS certificate does not exist to state that the site is somehow trustworthy. It exists only to state that the site is the site you think it is: to ensure there is no man in the middle (MITM) attacker. If you are visiting and get a certificate validation error, that means that even though your browser is displaying the URL, there’s zero reason to believe you’re really visiting rather than an attack site. Your browser can tell the difference, and it’s warning you. (More often, the site is just broken, or “misconfigured” if you want to be generous, but you and your browser have no way to know that.)

If you do not trust the site in question (e.g. you do not have any user account on the site), then there is not actually any harm in bypassing the warning. You don’t trust the site, so you do not care if a MITM is changing the page, recording your passwords, sending fake data to the site in your name, or whatever else.

But if you do trust the site, this error is cause to freak out and not continue, because it gives you have strong reason to believe there is a MITM attacker. Once you click continue, you should assume the MITM has total control over your interaction with the trusted website.

I will pick on Midori for an example of how bad design can confuse users:

The button label reads "Trust this website," but it should read "I do not trust this website."
The button label reads “Trust this website,” but it should read “I do not trust this website.”

As you can see from the label, Midori has this very wrong. Users are misled into continuing if they trust the website: the very situation in which it is unsafe to continue.

Firefox and Chrome handle this much better nowadays, but not perfectly. Firefox says “Your connection is not secure” while Chrome says “Your connection is not private.” It would be better to say: “This doesn’t look like the real”