Reluctant Rock Star

Security expert Ivan Arce dodges security spotlight, shares his passion for research and futbol (soccer)

Don't tell Iván Arce that security researchers are rock stars. Security is about as glamorous and sexy as unclogging a sink, according to the security expert and co-founder and CTO of Core Security. "What we do in information security is more like what plumbers do -- we fix things and get things working," Arce says. "You don't see plumbers being promoted as stars."

Figure 1:

But Arce himself is an international figure in security: He holds several patents, including ones for penetration testing and visualization technologies, and he is considered one of the top security experts in the industry. If you've never heard of him, all the better: That's just the way he likes it. "I don't like to talk about myself, and I don't like rock-star attitudes and the celebrity status that is given to many information security individuals," Arce says. "I think it is damaging to the discipline and to the industry."

Too many security people think their work is more important in the big picture than it really is, he says. "Many people in the infosec community are too self-conscious and have too high an image of their work and the role infosec plays in world affairs."

Arce doesn't take himself too seriously, nor is he all business all the time. He jokes that all he really does for Core is "pretend" to work, and that the only reason he was considered a star on his high school soccer team in Mexico was because he was Argentinean. "Argentineans are supposed to be good players," he says. "It gave me extra credit, not that I was really that good."

Arce, 37, has lived in several Latin American countries besides Mexico and his birthplace and current home in Buenos Aires, Argentina. There was Peru and Brazil as well. He grew up the only techie in a family of artists, with his parents in the film industry, and sisters in film, radio, and graphic design. "They couldn't understand what the hell I was doing... why was I tearing apart everything, like clocks, and trying to rebuild them. They didn't understand why I would do that and why I would sit at the computer for hours."

He started writing software programs when he was 16, and dropped out of the engineering program at the University of Buenos Aires to found Core in 1996. "It's all or nothing" in Argentina's six-year degree programs, he says, so he never got his degree. He got interested in security while working on cellphone and call-center applications at a computer-telephony integration startup in Argentina.

He got together some friends with mutual security interests and launched Core, which began as a consulting firm offering penetration testing services and vulnerability research. That led to building a tool to automate some of their work, which they fleshed out during some work they did for the former Secure Networks, which was later acquired by Network Associates (and later purchased by McAfee).

The scanner they worked on was the only one available at the time besides Internet Security Systems's tool, he says. "I saw all the flaws of vulnerability scanner technology -- the false positives and negatives, and the flat view of the network," he says. "It would tell you about vulns, but not about the attacks. We figured pen testing could automate that and make it simpler."

That helped inspire the Core Impact product, an automated, do-it-yourself pen testing tool that's considered the crème de la crème of tools, with commercial-quality exploits and a popular user-friendly interface that's starting to attract less-technical users as well as Core's traditional ones.

Core writes its own exploits -- Arce doesn't believe in buying bugs from outsiders. "I think it's wrong to pay for bugs," he says. "The thing you must take into account is those affected by the bug," the end users.

Arce says TippingPoint's recent decision to pay $10,000 for the MacBook hack contest at CanSecWest sent the wrong message. "In this case, the vulnerability information/exploits were not beneficial to end users in a contest with financial" incentive, he says.

"If you buy vulnerability information and give it to [your] paying customers only, you are using that information to obtain financial advantage because you're not giving it those who can't pay for it."

Core instead reports any bugs it finds to the affected vendor first, so it gets disclosed to everyone at the same time and the vendor has a chance to fix it, he says.

Arce says he no longer does the day-to-day engineering work at Core. He focuses more on the technology and how the user sees it, and he's also researching the next big attack trends five years out.

Don't expect him to make a big deal out of his findings, though.

Personality Bytes

  • Got game: "I see infosec more like a game rather than a war, and hence I talk about 'adversaries,' not 'enemies.' Perhaps because I got introduced to computers by playing around with home computers early on."

    • Worst day ever at work: "Early 2002, after the financial crisis in Argentina, and we were shifting gears in our strategy and running out of money, and we had our first Core announcement -- all of those things together were stressful."

    • Memorable moment: "I saw Diego Maradona play against England in Mexico at the 1986 World Cup."

    • Defining moment: "After the 1985 earthquake in Mexico, I spent the weeked after the earthquake and the following week as a volunteer in different capacities, ranging from assisting in the rescue operations at different locations to coordinating logistics at different shelters...I saw and lived really depressing situations but I also had a glimpse of the solidarity, unselfishness, and courage demonstrated by the thousands of volunteers are things I'll never forget and I guess they ended up solidifying an emotional bond with Mexico. It was devastating... My worst day at work was irrelevant compared to this."

    • Source of insomnia: "The most scary thing today is endpoint security. We haven't solved that problem -- it's the easiest path into the network by an internal or external attacker. We talk about sophisticated threats, but in the end, if I click on an email and link sent to me, you don't need a very strong model to break into the system."

    • In Arce's iPod: "6,500 songs, from jazz to reggae."

    • Comfort food: "Argentinean barbecue, which is [nothing] like barbecue in the U.S. It's not just the way we cook it, but we take the time to cook and eat. It's very relaxed."

    • Hangout: "Mundo Bizarro, a bar."

    • Favorite soccer team: "River, officially known as 'Club Atletico River Plate.'"

    • Earth-friendly: "I walk to work. It's about six-to eight blocks to my office."

      — Kelly Jackson Higgins, Senior Editor, Dark Reading

About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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