Name Calling

Are enterprises put off by the term 'researcher'?

2:00 PM -- The obvious disconnect between security researchers and their audience last week at the Gartner IT Security Summit ended up raising another question: Has the title "researcher" run its course? (See Enterprises Mull Own Bug Research and Using Bugs as Leverage.)

Trouble is, it's become a catch-all for lots of jobs and doesn't exactly capture all that a researcher/hacker/white-hat does. Plus it may scare off enterprises that are already queasy about vulnerability scanning. "We have a lot of problems as a practice, and one of them is we have to stop calling this 'research,' " says Thomas Ptacek, principal and founder of Matasano Security, one of the panelists. "You don't hire a 'home researcher' to check out a house before you buy it."

He thinks security researchers have made security "research" intimidating and inaccessible to enterprise security managers. "I think when we stop doing that, enterprises will find that, one, the majority of their testing needs center around commodity Web applications, which can be accessed by junior security people; and, two, that it's cost-effective to hire junior people to do that work and train them up to be rock stars."

So we informally polled some of the top researchers, and here are a few title changes they suggested:

  • Analyst
  • Auditor
  • Engineer
  • Inspector
  • Tester

Ptacek says he thinks "auditor," sexy or not, may win out eventually. "That's already a term used by businesses for security testing," he says. "But we'd have to be made of stupid to keep calling them 'researchers.' "

Not all researchers are ready to change labels, though. RSnake, a.k.a. Robert Hansen, founder of SecTheory, says there's no need for a name change for his line of work. " 'Researcher' is a noble term. While 'security researcher' might sound like a bastion of a black hat with a white suit, I think it is the term that has stood the test of time to explain that the activities are non-malicious," he says.

OK, so none of the new names are a sure thing, and some may end up generating more confusion than "researcher," but there's got to be some way to stop scaring off enterprises with the "R" word. Post your vote to our Message Board for what you think researchers should be called.

— Kelly Jackson Higgins, Senior Editor, Dark Reading

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