Security, Ethics, and University

[This was originally published on the OSVDB blog.]

In the U.S., you are expected to know and live by certain ethical standards related to school. You are taught early on that plagiarism is bad for example. You are taught that school experiments should be done in a safe manner, that does not harm people or animals. Despite this, most colleges and universities maintain a Code of Conduct or a Code of Ethics that applies to both students and faculty. In the security industry, integrity is critical. Part of having integrity is behaving ethically in everything you do. This is important because if a researcher or consultant is questionable or unethical in one part of their life, there is no guarantee they will be when performing services for a client.

In the last week, we have seen two incidents that call into question if university students understand this at all. The first was a PhD student from a university in the U.S. who was not pleased we wouldn’t share our entire database with him. While we try our best to support academic research, we do not feel any academic project requires our entire data set. Further, many of the research projects he and his colleagues are working on are funded by the U.S. government, who may have contract language that means all data gets handed over to them, including ours. Instead of accepting our decision, he said he could just scrape our site and take all of our data anyway. I reminded him that not only does it violate our license, but it violates his university code of conduct and jeopardizes any government funding.

The second instance is outlined in more detail below since a group of three students posted multiple advisories yesterday, that call into question their sense of ethics. Note that the idea of “responsible” disclosure is a term that was strongly pushed by Scott Culp and Microsoft. His article on the topic has since been removed it seems. The term “responsible” disclosure is biased from the start, implying that anyone who doesn’t play by their rules is “irresponsible”. Instead, a better term of “coordinated disclosure” has been used since. Of course, the time frames involved in coordinated disclosure are still heavily debated and likely will never be agreed on. The time given to a vendor for them to patch a flaw cannot be a fixed length. A small content management system with an XSS vulnerability can often be patched in a day or week, where an overflow in a library of an operating system may take months due to testing for compatibility and regression. If the vulnerability is in a device that is difficult (or basically impossible) to upgrade, such as SCADA or non-connected devices (e.g. a pacemaker), then extra caution or thought should be given before disclosing it. While no fixed time can be agreed on, most people in the industry know when a researcher did not give a vendor enough time, or when a vendor seems to be taking too long. It isn’t science; it is a combination of gut and personal experience.

Yesterday’s disclosure of interest is by three students from the European University of Madrid who analyzed IP video cameras as part of their final project of “Security and Information Technology Master”. From their post:

In total, we analyzed 9 different camera brands and we have found 14 vulnerabilities.

**Note that all the analysis we have done has been from cameras found through Google dorks and Shodan, so we have not needed to purchase any of them for our tests. Everything we needed was online.

First, the obvious. Rather than purchasing their own hardware, they used Google and Shodan to find these IP cameras deployed by consumers and businesses. Devices that did not belong to them, they did not have permission to test, and ran the risk of disabling with their testing. If one of the cameras monitored security for a business and became disabled, it further posed a risk to the company as it created a further gap in their physical security.

Second, given these devices are deployed all over the world, and are traditionally difficult or annoying to upgrade, you might expect the researchers to give the vendors adequate time to verify the vulnerabilities and create a fix. How much time did the vendors get?

Airlive6 days
Axis16 days
Brickcom11 days
Grandstream11 days for 1 vuln, 0 days for 2 vulns
Samsung0 days
Sony17 days
TP-LINK11 days

Shortly after posting their advisory, others on the Full Disclosure mail list challenged them too. For the vendors who received 16 and 17 days, many researchers would consider over two weeks to be adequate. However, for the two vendors that got less than 24 hours warning before disclosure, that is not considered coordinated by anyone.

Every researcher can handle disclosure how they see fit. For some, they have not considered the implications of uncoordinated disclosure, often in a hurry to get their advisory out for name recognition or the thrill. For others that have been doing this a long time, they find themselves jaded after dealing with one too many vendor who was uncooperative, stalled more than 1000 days, or threatened a lawsuit. In this case, they are students at a university and likely not veterans of the industry. Despite their own beliefs, one has to wonder if they violated a code of conduct and what their professor will say.

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