an absurd industry

May 31st, 2008

There are many things that seem reasonable to the average rational person, but then there are some that just seem absurd.

First, a little background. Security is not just a playground for hackers and software companies. It seems that way sometimes, but security has become a rather potent industry in its own right since the days of the first well publicized viruses and Windows exploits. So much so that finding and reporting security exploits is now commonly a job rather than an underground, subculture activity. There is a bunch of people who are employed to do this now, and who effectively drive the standards for security by publishing bugs in various products.

Now, whenever something has value of some kind, simple economic principles naturally imply that it can be used in a trade. Security vulnerabilities indeed have certain value. By discovering a weakness in a product that noone else knows about, you stand to gain something if you decide to use it maliciously. If not, you may still consider selling it to someone who will use it maliciously. And if you're just not into that kind of evil, you still have a certain leverage over the vendor that sells this product, because you know more about it than they do. So you could easily contact them and say I found a weakness in your product, which allows people to steal your customers' data. Although I don't intend to abuse this personally, we both know there are plenty of people out there who do, and who work hard to find these bugs themselves. If this weakness in your software should remain intact, and abused by someone, you're gonna be in a lot of trouble. So how about you recompense the efforts of my research and I will hand it over?

As a vendor, this isn't the most pleasant email to get. But after all, this person has found something that is our fault, and we have only ourselves to blame for selling something that has such an obvious weakness in it (or we don't think it's serious and we'll just wing it, hoping noone gets burnt on this). Okay, raw deal for the vendor, but if you're selling something that your customers bought in good faith, and it turns out it could pose a threat to their data, it's definitely your fault.

Depending on how successfully this person is able to negotiate with the vendor, the outcome may be various. But if the [let's call him a] researcher isn't able to come to terms, the next best thing is just to make it public. Like we saw already, a vulnerability has a certain value. If you're not able to claim this in hard currency, you'll at least want the recognition for finding this bug so that you can hone your reputation as a security professional and maybe someone will give you a [better] job.

But there is a problem. As we know from every Hollywood corporation-vs-little-guy story, companies always respond to threats the same way: calling their lawyers. The lawyers always try the same thing: hush it up. So they send out lots of scary documents, trying to shut the guy up. And whatever your legal position is, you'll never win, cause corporations have armies of lawyers (armies of janitors too, actually, armies of everything). So chances are they will successfully silence you and your plan of publishing the vulnerability fails. You don't get any money, and you don't get any credit. The vulnerability remains intact, the vendor, even if they know how to fix it, probably won't do anything about it cause noone is pushing them to.

This is the bizzarre landscape in which an industry, which would otherwise seem absurd, somehow makes sense. These security researchers don't have protection against legal warfare, so there are actually certain companies now that trade in vulnerabilities. They will buy them from researchers and then try to reclaim a profit from the vendor, or even sort of broker the deal without putting the researcher in jeopardy. This way, the researcher can either get money for it, or if that fails, publish it.

Not surprisingly, vendors make a big stink about what they call "responsible disclosure" (ie. telling them first, hoping they don't try to silence you I guess), but the truth is they abhor these things being made public, as Jonathan Zdziarski explains at length.


Incidentally, if you're at all interested in security, you should check out some of the fascinating talks on security from various security events. Conferences like DefCon generally publish all the talks online. You'll be blown away by what's actually possible (and not just possible, probably being done right now) and your perception of how secure you should feel online will be changed forever. If you want to be both enlightened and entertained, try Dan Kaminsky, he likes to showboat.

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