Security research is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. Security researchers run an assembly line of self-aggrandizing publicity, churning out press releases and announcements patting themselves on the back for discovering security vulnerabilities in software by Microsoft, Oracle, and other major vendors.
The researchers operate under a constant cloud of suspicion: Are they simply creating a climate of useless fear, stifling innovation, E-commerce, and technology implementation? Are they providing guideposts to computer criminals on where and when to attack?
But as reported in "The Fear Industry" by Larry Greenemeier, security researchers provide an essential function. They apply pressure on vendors to fix security flaws instead of simply denying the flaws exist and hoping they go away. And they help fill IT managers' insatiable need for information about vulnerabilities and security.Larry describes how security researchers drove exposure of the Windows Metafile vulnerability earlier this year, discovering the flaw, posting a sample exploit, releasing a third-party patch when Microsoft moved too slowly to fix the problem, and eventually driving Microsoft to release its own patch for the vulnerability five days ahead of schedule. The relentless action by security researchers drove people like Connie Sadler, director of IT security at Brown University, to tear up their schedules for several days and focus on fixing the Windows Metafile vulnerability on their own networks.
Vendors like Cisco, Apple, and Oracle have similarly had their feet held to the fire.
Security vendors like 3Com and iDefense offer bounties of up to $10,000 to researchers who discover a serious security flaw. They say they provide an alternative to security researchers, who can be paid up to $4,000 for selling those vulnerabilities to crooks.
So are these researchers providing a service, or are they little better than crooks themselves? IT managers like Sadler love them, despite the inconvenience they cause. "Yes, sometimes that backfires. But from a high level, it's a good thing. The folks who use this information to do damage are going to know about it long before us anyway," she says. And she likes knowing which vendors are producing insecure products.
What do you think? Should security vulnerabilities be covered up, or aggressively exposed to public scrutiny?