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January/February 2012

Can a computer security researcher go too far?

Centuries of literary works and real-life scenarios have depicted the battle of good versus evil:  God versus Satan; Hamlet vs. Claudius; Darth Vader vs. Luke; Cubs vs. Sox; NBA players vs. NBA owners. In the security community, it’s the Security Researcher vs. the Corporation.  The reality is that in most of these scenarios, the characters are simply flawed or have differing agendas, neither of which are truly good or evil. I have been following the security community for 15 years and I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly associated with researchers releasing their findings and the corporate responses.  It is a point of constant conflict in the industry. A few cases have led me to question whether computer security researchers can go too far and whether the companies they research really are the bad guys:  George "GeoHot" Hotz “mod’ing” the Sony PlayStation console; Patrick Webster vs. First State Superannuation in Australia; and  Charlie Miller vs. Apple. In each case, I draw an analogy to buying a riding lawn mower.  I ...

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