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Face-Off: Is vulnerability research ethical?

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POINT by Bruce Schneier

The standard way to take control of someone else's computer is by exploiting a vulnerability in a software program on it. This was true in the 1960s when buffer overflows were first exploited to attack computers. It was true in 1988 when the Morris worm exploited a Unix vulnerability to attack computers on the Internet, and it's still how most modern malware works.

Vulnerabilities are software mistakes--mistakes in specification and design, but mostly mistakes in programming. Any large software package will have thousands of mistakes. These vulnerabilities lie dormant in our software systems, waiting to be discovered. Once discovered, they can be used to attack systems. This is the point of security patching: eliminating known vulnerabilities. But many systems don't get patched, so the Internet is filled with known, exploitable vulnerabilities.

New vulnerabilities are hot commodities. A hacker who discovers one can sell it on the black market, blackmail the vendor with disclosure, or simply publish it without regard to the consequences. Even if he does none of these, the mere fact the vulnerability is known by someone increases the risk to every user of that software. Given that, is it ethical to research new vulnerabilities?

Unequivocally, yes. Despite the risks, vulnerability research is enormously valuable. Security is a mindset, and looking for vulnerabilities nurtures that mindset. Deny practitioners this vital learning tool, and security suffers accordingly.

Security engineers see the world differently than other engineers. Instead of focusing on how systems work, they focus on how systems fail, how they can be made to fail, and how to prevent--or protect against--those failures. Most software vulnerabilities don't ever appear in normal operations, only when an attacker deliberately exploits them. So security engineers need to think like attackers.

People without the mindset sometimes think they can design security products, but they can't. And you see the results all over society--in snake-oil cryptography, software, Internet protocols, voting machines, and fare card and other payment systems. Many of these systems had someone in charge of "security" on their teams, but it wasn't someone who thought like an attacker.

This mindset is difficult to teach, and may be something you're born with or not. But in order to train people possessing the mindset, they need to search for and find security vulnerabilities--again and again and again. And this is true regardless of the domain. Good cryptographers discover vulnerabilities in others' algorithms and protocols. Good software security experts find vulnerabilities in others' code. Good airport security designers figure out new ways to subvert airport security. And so on.

This is so important that when someone shows me a security design by someone I don't know, my first question is, "What has the designer broken?" Anyone can design a security system that he cannot break. So when someone announces, "Here's my security system, and I can't break it," your first reaction should be, "Who are you?" If he's someone who has broken dozens of similar systems, his system is worth looking at. If he's never broken anything, the chance is zero that it will be any good.

Vulnerability research is vital because it trains our next generation of computer security experts. Yes, newly discovered vulnerabilities in software and airports put us at risk, but they also give us more realistic information about how good the security actually is. And yes, there are more and less responsible--and more and less legal--ways to handle a new vulnerability. But the bad guys are constantly searching for new vulnerabilities, and if we have any hope of securing our systems, we need the good guys to be at least as competent. To me, the question isn't whether it's ethical to do vulnerability research. If someone has the skill to analyze and provide better insights into the problem, the question is whether it is ethical for him not to do vulnerability research.

This was first published in May 2008

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