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3/1/2011
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Why I'm Quitting Security (Part 1)

In hacker-on-hacker attacks, the security community turns on itself, which breeds distrust

The last straw came at the RSA Conference: A perfect storm of negative situations culminated at one of the big vendor parties with me apparently having lost my phone. While no one sees losing a phone as a good thing, it is necessary to go back to the weeks leading up to RSA to really understand why losing my phone felt like a betrayal that finally broke the camel's back.

For the past several weeks, rumors having been flying in hushed tones across every InfoSec inbox about a group that wished to remain anonymous and the "corporate hacker" that turned on them. The sentiment shared across the Internet was, "You better be quiet or you'll be next in the hornet's nest." This is a toxic mindset that is detrimental to everyone's goals.

In our neck of the woods, a similar situation has been brewing. A well-known hacker has targeted Errata and others on a campaign of misinformation. Once again there were email logs posted publicly by a vigilante third party, and a shared reaction of reluctance to speak out -- thereby making oneself a target.

The major thing these two situations have in common is the hacker-on-hacker attacks. In these instances, the community turns on itself, and breeds ugliness. There are arguments for it, "We need to police ourselves..." and against, "We aren't the enemy" and, "Violence begets violence." But none of these arguments takes into account that we are dealing with techniques that are, for lack of a better word, sinister. There is no excuse for using hacking/cracking in the wild. How would it look if other areas of law enforcement used their tools on each other? Has there ever been a justified cop shooting?

That brings us back to the nightclub during RSA where I realized for the first time I didn't have my phone anymore. The last time I remembered having it was when I used it to push a Twitter message up to the TV screen on the dance floor, so everyone knew I was there. That's when all of the ugliness of the past month hit me, and I looked around, panicked. Had someone there actually taken the phone from me? I knew what was on it, and it was valuable. But did someone cross that line? A year ago, I would have said, "No, security pros respect each other and share a common goal of stopping criminals. That would be unthinkable." But at that particular moment, all of that ideology about a noble profession, ethics, and honor were shattered. It was no longer the case that the people who have the power to do the "messed up stuff" would never do that. I felt betrayed.

I never found my phone, but I acknowledge now that it's probably just in a taxi cab or in the garbage. The point of me thinking someone took it has past -- it was just an emotional reaction to something that had been stewing in my mind for weeks.

At Errata, we spend almost all of our time securing our infrastructure against a fellow hacker's attack, not an unknown assailant. On the EuroTrash Security Podcast this week, the guys discussed how, "This sort of thing could happen to any one of us" and, "What would I do if that happens to me?" I feel this mindset has gotten out of control. It wasn't always this bad. Even at the Security Bloggers Meetup at RSA, Mike Rothman made the uneasy joke: "There may be someone from Anonymous here. I don't know who you are, so don't mess with me." Making jokes about the situation is practically like how some people deal with death. We're all just trying to cope.

So for my part, I want it to stop. I'd rather have the mindset of "ignorance is bliss." But more than that, I want to be off the industry radar. It has always been hard for me to earn my spot in the security community, but now it's just downright not worth it. Especially since now I'm starting to think that the only way to get people to start "using technology securely" (as Shrdlu says) is to break out of the echo chamber and distance myself from this charade.

For now this is still just an idea, but if there are others who feel the same way, please make your feelings known. We need to affirm that there is a line between right and wrong. As Harvey Dent said, "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." I don't think it has to be this way, but I do think we need to step up if we are to protect the integrity of our profession.

Join Marisa Fagan here next week as she covers Part 2 of "Why I'm Quitting Security," where she explains where she'll go from here. Fagan is security project manager at Errata Security.

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