Last week, I had a long conversation with Robert Lemos over an article he was writing about full disclosure. He had noticed that companies have recently been reacting more negatively to security researchers publishing vulnerabilities about their products.
The debate over full disclosure is as old as computing, and I’ve written about it before. Disclosing security vulnerabilities is good for security and good for society, but vendors really hate it. It results in bad press, forces them to spend money fixing vulnerabilities, and comes out of nowhere. Over the past decade or so, we’ve had an uneasy truce between security researchers and product vendors. That truce seems to be breaking down.
Lemos believes the problem is that because today’s research targets aren’t traditional computer companies—they’re phone companies, or embedded system companies, or whatnot—they’re not aware of the history of the debate or the truce, and are responding more viscerally. For example, Carrier IQ threatened legal action against the researcher that outed it, and only backed down after the EFF got involved. I am reminded of the reaction of locksmiths to Matt Blaze’s vulnerability disclosures about lock security; they thought he was evil incarnate for publicizing hundred-year-old security vulnerabilities in lock systems. And just last week, I posted about a full-disclosure debate in the virology community.
I think Lemos has put his finger on part of what’s going on, but that there’s more. I think that companies, both computer and non-computer, are trying to retain control over the situation. Apple’s heavy-handed retaliation against researcher Charlie Miller is an example of that. On one hand, Apple should know better than to do this. On the other hand, it’s acting in the best interest of its brand: the fewer researchers looking for vulnerabilities, the fewer vulnerabilities it has to deal with.
It’s easy to believe that if only people wouldn’t disclose problems, we could pretend they didn’t exist, and everything would be better. Certainly this is the position taken by the DHS over terrorism: public information about the problem is worse than the problem itself. It’s similar to Americans’ willingness to give both Bush and Obama the power to arrest and indefinitely detain any American without any trial whatsoever. It largely explains the common public backlash against whistle-blowers. What we don’t know can’t hurt us, and what we do know will also be known by those who want to hurt us.
There’s some profound psychological denial going on here, and I’m not sure of the implications of it all. It’s worth paying attention to, though. Security requires transparency and disclosure, and if we willingly give that up, we’re a lot less safe as a society.