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4/13/2006
08:05 PM
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Software Security Groupies Kiss And Tell

Bet you didn't know that software companies, like rock stars, have groupies. Rock star groupies know every word to every one of their favorite band's songs, and they know how to wrangle backstage passes that make them privy to the band's inner workings. In my April 17 article on software companies and the security researcher groupies who love them, I spin a yarn about several instances where researchers found their way onto the proverbial tour bus. Do the people in charge of IT security really w

Bet you didn't know that software companies, like rock stars, have groupies. Rock star groupies know every word to every one of their favorite band's songs, and they know how to wrangle backstage passes that make them privy to the band's inner workings. In my April 17 article on software companies and the security researcher groupies who love them, I spin a yarn about several instances where researchers found their way onto the proverbial tour bus. Do the people in charge of IT security really want these groupies to kiss and tell?You bet. But simply blabbing on about flaws in a vendor's code to the nearest mailing list can do more harm than good. My story points to cases where disclosure was done properly, and where it's been detrimental to the IT community as a whole.

Alexander Kornbrust is an Oracle groupie. Kornbrust, the CEO of security research and consulting firm Red-Database-Security and a former employee of Oracle in Germany and Switzerland, is constantly on the hunt for weaknesses in Oracle software that can be exploited by malicious hackers. A few days ago, he got a tip from a colleague trolling Oracle's Metalink customer support portal that Oracle had mistakenly posted details about an unpatched vulnerability in Oracle Database 9i and Oracle Database 10g that lets users escalate their database access privileges. Along with the vulnerability was a sample of exploit code that could be used to take advantage of the flaw.

It was a bittersweet revelation for Oracle. Sure, it was happy to find out about the mistake. But I can't think of any software vendor that enjoys a steady stream of "gotchas" from a recurring collective of code groupies. Oracle shouldn't complain though. Based on what I've heard, Kornbrust notified Oracle of the error via E-mail, and the vulnerability and exploit information were swiftly removed from the site. Kornbrust told me that Oracle's E-mailed response even thanked him for his attentiveness. I'm guessing this was done through clenched teeth.

Kornbrust told me that he frequently visits Oracle's Metalink customer support portal looking for information he can use as part of his research. He refers to the process as "Metalink hacking," whereby he retrieves sensitive Oracle and customer-related information from the Metalink site. He even wrote a paper on the subject. In one search alone, he found 42 unknown security bugs related to a number of Oracle products and patches, he writes, adding, "It is very astonishing for the kind of data that is available on this knowledge base even for a customer with a limited permission."

I cover several more incidents like this in the April 17 story. One thing I didn't get to address was the characteristics that security researchers share--in other words, what drives them to be software groupies. VeriSign told me a little about the researchers that contribute to its iDefense vulnerability contributor program. They're typically guys in their midteens to late 20s, with a strong knowledge of IT security, even though they're not necessarily in a career related to IT security. The pool of talent is international, although the highest percentage, 23%, is from the United States.

When hiring security researchers, 3Com's TippingPoint division looks for a unique combination of talents. "Certifications and degrees are less important than actual experience," David Endler, TippingPoint's director of security research, told me. "We look for someone with a passion for security, who might have a couple specific interests such as spyware, Web security, VoIP, or reverse-engineering." If a candidate claims to know a particular programming language, that person will be given a set of code containing a vulnerability or exploit. TippingPoint expects the candidate to be able to explain what they find in the code and how they found it. "We also do background checks on everyone who comes into our group. Black-hat hackers often have reputations that precede them."

Dubious reputations and an international fan base? Make way for the software groupies!

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