The Problems with Gods

When I was learning how to work with computers early in life, I ran across various documentation and writings that would liken the root account to being a god on the system. Over the years, I’ve seen other articles that note will describe “God mode” in various software systems. There have even been science fiction books describing the god-like abilities of a person that obtains a privileged account on a system.

To me, this is one of those places where our industry is immature. Having an account that can perform any task on a system, with no limits, is indeed like a god. This account can do anything, which is a double edged sword. Someone can reconfigure, fix, patch, update anything to ensure the system runs well. Or they can “rm /rf” the system.

Recently Verelox had their entire system wiped out by a former administrator. There are a variety of problems with this story, not the least of which is leaving old credentials active. Mike Walsh wrote about some of the issues from a backup perspective. I would add from a security perspective that this is why an individual’s credentials need to be disabled immediately, and any well known, long time passwords need to be changed. We do this in the physical world by changing locks. We need to do this in the digital work as well.

However, I see a overreaching account with unlimited privileges as fundamentally a bad idea. Sure, this makes installing software or reconfiguring our system easier, but perhaps we should be required to use separate accounts for all sorts of options. This is especially true when we build a distributed system across multiple machines. As the number of services and systems increases, the value from having one account able to accomplish every task outweighs the potential issues.

Humans make mistakes. We make inadvertent ones when we’re tired or distracted. We make malicious mistakes we regret; we make emotional mistakes by overreacting to a situation. We make mistakes based on incorrect information. If we have all the power over a shared system, then we may easily make mistakes that could cause an extraordinary amount of damage.

Our modern systems should include the ability for a separation of all duties and more default accounts that we configure. At the very least we should separate administration from auditing, and perhaps security as well. A slight inconvenience during setup is worth accidental issues in the future. Having separate accounts for different functions will also help to slow down the potential problems in the future by ensuring no one user account can be used to perform every function on a platform if it’s compromised.

Steve Jones

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