My words on free/open source software

Friday, November 07, 2008

Don't use APT::Default-Release in Ubuntu unless you know what you are doing

Setting APT::Default-Release in Ubuntu blocks all future security fixes and updates.

This is related to all versions before Hardy (include). I haven't tested this on Intrepid so I'm not sure about those versions after Hardy.

According to apt_preferences manpage, the target release can be set on the apt-get command line or in the APT configuration file /etc/apt/apt.conf, and "APT::Default-Release "stable";" is given out as an example. This is a very common and popular practice used in Debian community to set the default release and using apt-pin, but doing this in Ubuntu leads to serious security impact with no obvious warning.

After setting APT::Default-Release to "hardy", which is the "Suite" name for main hardy source, no security fixes nor updates would be installed unless their priorities are also set explicitly in apt_preferences. This is because that in Ubuntu's world, security fixes are from "hardy-security" source and other updates are from "hardy-updates" source, which bear different "Suite" from the main source. Setting APT::Default-Release rises the priority of packages from main source to 990, but doesn't cover packages from hardy-security and hardy-updates, so the latter are ignored since their packages now has lower priority (priority 500 only) than those old ones in main source (990).

I set APT::Default-Release to "hardy" on Sep this year until I found this problem today. Removed that setting and I'm surprised to found that I can install 46 security fixes and updates accumulated. Which is pretty sad to me that got known I haven't got security fixes for more than 2 months.

This is a radical deviation from the Debian practice. In Debian all security fixes and updates bear the same "Suite" (etch or lenny) so setting APT::Default-Release to "etch" covers all security fixes and updates.

I think it's unlikely that Ubuntu changes the organization of it's source, so at least a fix to this problem is patching the apt_preferences manpage, alerting people not to use APT::Default-Release like they have used this in Debian and the reason and the following impacts.

I've opened a bug about this:

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