Quell quack hackers

Hackers tell tall tales, says Frank Hayes

Hoax hacks and Rigged demos of make-believe security holes. This was the big news that came out of the Black Hat USA security conference last month. But two claims made by independent security researchers at the show have since turned out to be bogus.

One, a reportedly easy-to-exploit security problem in a Cisco firewall appliance, isn’t reproducible. The other, an allegedly even-easier-to-exploit hole in Apple’s wi-fi drivers, didn’t actually involve attacking Apple’s products after all.

So much for one of IT’s last great myths: the honest hacker.

Hey, I still believe honest hackers exist. More than a dozen security problems were showcased by Black Hatters this year. Some have already been fixed; some have vendors hard at work correcting very real issues.

Lots of the people who turned up these problems gained their security expertise the old-fashioned way: by hacking into systems they weren’t supposed to be anywhere near. They’ve since cleaned up, dressed up and hung out their shingles as security researchers. But we know at heart they’re still hackers.

And that’s been highly valuable to us, especially since IT product vendors aren’t always, um, completely candid about security issues. These hackers compete to build credibility by finding security holes and telling us about them. It’s in their interest to be honest players in this free market for information about IT vulnerabilities. That’s how they build business.

Vendors don’t much like it — security holes make them look bad. And it’s a pain for us to learn that our production systems are at risk. But the real bad guys already know about the flaws. We’re just finding out what we need to know to protect ourselves — at least when the hackers keep it honest.

Now we’re learning that some of them have all the reliability of an IT vendor dog-and-pony show.

Consider Hendrik Scholz, the guy who said at Black Hat that he found a “really easy to do” technique for bypassing Cisco’s firewall appliances. His claim consisted of a single slide he tacked onto the end of his talk (it wasn’t in the version of Scholz’s presentation that Black Hat attendees received).

But in interviews, Scholz admitted that an attack would require insider knowledge and pre-existing control of a device inside the firewall. No wonder Cisco can’t reproduce a successful real-world attack.

Or consider SecureWorks researcher David Maynor and hacker Jon “Johnny Cache” Ellch, who worked the press like champs with a Black Hat demonstration of hacking into a wireless-equipped Apple MacBook in 60 seconds. It generated plenty of “Mac hack” publicity.

But SecureWorks has now distanced itself from its employee’s published claims that he can hack Mac wi-fi. It turns out the Black Hat demo was on third-party wi-fi products that Maynor won’t identify. He’s never shown an attack on Apple’s built-in wireless hardware and software — not even privately to Apple. And Maynor has acknowledged that he demonstrated on the Mac because he thought Mac users were smug about security — and because of the headlines a Mac attack would generate.

True enough: a drive-by cheap shot at Cisco or Apple is sure to score headlines. Never mind the collateral damage to the credibility of other security researchers or to the trust of their potential customers in corporate IT.

IT people don’t need more dog-and-pony shows. We’ve been cleaning up the mess from those for years.

We need security research we can trust. And the stuff Black Hatters are selling just got harder to buy.

But even if we now have to view these researchers with the same jaundiced eye we once reserved for our most shameless vendors, they’re still worth our attention. We may believe them less, but we haven’t got much choice.

After all, when it comes to uncovering security holes, if you can’t trust hackers, who can you trust?

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