Legal flap over Defcon talk exposes divide on security flaws

A court order put a stop to a planned presentation at the Defcon hackers convention by three MIT students who found security flaws in the electronic ticketing system used by the mass transit authority in Boston. But the ruling reopened the schism in the IT security community over the issue of how vulnerabilities should be publicly disclosed.

Critics of the temporary restraining order issued last Saturday by a federal judge in Boston have labeled it an infringement of the students’ First Amendment rights and an example of prior restraint on free speech. Many said such actions leave vulnerable systems open to attackers and put a chill on security research, driving legitimate researchers underground.

Others, though, see the case involving the students and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) as another example of publicity-hungry security researchers driven more by ego and the desire for fame than by any sincere interest in improving security.

The always-simmering disclosure debate boiled over again after the MBTA obtained the 10-day gag order barring the MIT undergrads — Zack Anderson, Russell “RJ” Ryan and Alessandro Chiesa — from publicly disclosing information about the flaws in its e-ticketing system. The order was handed down the day before a scheduled Defcon session in which the students planned to detail the holes, which they say they found during independent penetration testing.

In an affidavit, the MBTA claimed that the students didn’t give it sufficient information about the vulnerabilities beforehand. The transit authority added that it wasn’t trying to permanently gag the students, but that it wanted some time to determine the validity and seriousness of the flaws and a course of action for addressing them.

But the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a high-tech civil rights group that is representing the three students in court, contended that the gag order was unconstitutional and wholly unnecessary. Some of the information that the students planned to present had been previously published elsewhere, the EFF noted. And, it said, the students had told the MBTA that they wouldn’t release technical details that could be used to take advantage of the flaws.

Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer at BT Group PLC, joined 10 computer science professors and researchers in signing a letter opposing the restraining order that the EFF included as part of a motion to reconsider the decision (download PDF). Schneier said this week that publicly disclosing vulnerabilities often is the only way to prod businesses to address them.

“Companies won’t make [their systems] better by themselves,” Schneier said. MBTA officials, he claimed, “are counting on the legal system to protect their shoddy work” on IT security.

Schneier agreed that it’s good practice in general to give organizations some advance notice before publicly disclosing flaws in their systems. But, he said, it’s often hard to determine exactly what might be construed as “reasonable disclosure” and what might not be.

Steven Bellovin, a computer science professor at Columbia University who also signed the letter, said it’s a fallacy to assume that a security problem goes away or remains hidden from view “simply because you don’t talk about it” in public.

“I’m not saying the first thing you do when you find a vulnerability is to post it on your blog,” Bellovin said. “But getting injunctions against people is like saying [to them], ‘If you didn’t find it, this problem wouldn’t exist.”

As long as the students didn’t plan to use what they had discovered for malicious purposes, they had every right to talk about it, asserted Jim Kirby, a senior network engineer at DataWare Services, an IT services firm in Sioux Falls, S.D. “Anyone who says otherwise is invited to read the Constitution,” Kirby said, adding that the restraining order was an effort “to enforce security by obscurity.”

Other critics pointed out that much of the information has already become public anyway, since slides put together by the students were included on a CD given to Defcon attendees. In fact, the MBTA this week asked the court to modify the gag order so it covered only “non-public” info. A hearing on that motion, and one by the EFF seeking a reconsideration of the restraining order, was held on Thursday by a different judge in U.S. District Court in Boston. But he declined to take any action on the motions.

On the other side of the disclosure debate, David Jordan, chief information security officer for Virginia’s Arlington County, said the reasonable course of action would have been for the students to help the MBTA address the flaws before disclosing them publicly.

“When you discover major flaws in a system that society relies on, you go to the people who own the system and work with them,” Jordan said “You don’t stand up on a podium and say, ‘Look how clever I am.'”

He added that in such cases, the goal of security researchers often seems to be to further their own agendas instead of helping others fix problems. “It’s all about improving one’s own self-absorbed ego,” Jordan said.

The students did meet with an MBTA police officer and an FBI agent on Aug. 4 and then delivered a short report on their findings to the MBTA prior to Defcon, according to a court document filed by the EFF (download PDF). But Gartner Inc. analyst John Pescatore said the MBTA wasn’t given a reasonable amount of time before the scheduled Defcon presentation to fix the problems or develop work-arounds for them.

The intent of disclosing flaws should be to make software and systems more secure, “not to make headlines or sell tickets to security conferences,” Pescatore said. In this case, he added, “the students went for publicity.”

In doing so, they didn’t follow well-understood principles of responsible disclosure, according to Pescatore. “Responsible vulnerability disclosure really does clean up the software equivalent of dead wood,” he said. “But releasing vulnerability info for sport or publicity does not.”

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