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Cenzic Patent Case Worries Web Researchers, Vendors

Controversial patent could affect other Web app scanners, research

A patent infringement lawsuit recently filed by Cenzic against SPI Dynamics has Web application security companies and researchers on edge.

If successful, the suit -- which centers around Cenzic's patent on a Web application vulnerability scanning technology -- could mean trouble for other scanner vendors, as well as researchers who develop scanning techniques.

Cenzic, which in June was awarded a patent for its so-called "fault injection" technology, is going after SPI Dynamics -- now a part of Hewlett-Packard -- for using fault injection in SPI's line of Web application scanner products. But Cenzic's patent had previously stirred the ire of researchers, including white-hat hackers on the sla.ckers.org site, some of whom demonstrated their displeasure by revealing cross-site scripting bugs in Cenzic's own Website.

Web applications are considered the biggest bull's eye for attackers these days -- experts estimate that 70 to 80 percent of all Websites harbor app bugs. And because applications are proprietary, many app security researchers are often afraid to report a bug on a Website, even if they come across it accidentally. (See Laws Threaten Security Researchers.)

Critics argue that Cenzic's patent has no merit, because other technologies doing much the same thing have been around for several years. But they say they worry that if HP/SPI loses the case, the outcome would set a dangerous precedent.

"If this were to become something only Cenzic could do or work on, it would damage much of the industry that currently works on some of the more innovative technologies around vulnerability scanning," says Robert Hansen, a.k.a. Rsnake, a researcher and founder of SecTheory.

"It would hurt the companies that use that scanning technology, because the companies would either have to stop doing business entirely or pay for a license, which would mean higher costs in getting vulnerabilities fixed," Hansen says. "[Cenzic is] essentially bullying their competition, while inhibiting innovation in the industry."

Chris Eng, Veracode's director of security services, today blogged that he knows of at least two fault-injection tools that were released around 2000-01, and "other security consultancies at the time were certainly using similar techniques," rendering Cenzic's patent moot.

Eng wrote that the trouble with Cenzic's patent -- as well as that of IBM/Watchfire's for a Web app scanning method -- is that such patents stifle developers' efforts to create new and better Web app scanning techniques and tools. Eng thinks HP/SPI has a good chance of winning the case.

Neither HP/SPI nor Cenzic would comment on the litigation.

Much depends on how aggressively Cenzic plays the lawsuit, SecTheory's Hansen says. "If they issue a 'cease and desist,' it could literally drive some companies out of business. If they force companies to pay royalties, it could make the cost of going to Cenzic's competitors unreasonably high, thereby choking the competition. Either way, it will scare independent innovation, which is where most of the best ideas are coming from.

"I cannot see why this could possibly go through," says Hansen. "There is tons of prior art, and the technology is obvious to anyone in the industry."

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  • Cenzic Inc.
  • SPI Dynamics
  • SecTheory LLC
  • Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ)
  • IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM)