Such criticism isn’t new. Two Gartner analysts, Rich Mogull and Greg Young, made the same point last week in their analysis of April's CanSecWest security conference, which saw $10,000 put up as a prize for managing to hack Apple computers in an open challenge.
The hole that allowed hacking challenger Dino Dai Zovi to win the prize, turned out to be a potentially serious unpatched vulnerability affecting all OS X computers. TippingPoint said that Apple would be informed privately, but others have pointed out this is no guarantee that the exploit information could not have made it into the public domain by other channels.
“The publicity around the contest has exposed thousands of companies to potential compromise through browser attacks, said Kris Lamb of ISS in a statement. “This contest is an excellent example of what can happen when security companies do not have a strict separation of “church and state” between marketing and vulnerability research.
“IBM Internet Security Systems agrees with Gartner’s assessment that “public vulnerability research and ‘hacking contests’ are risky endeavours, and can run contrary to responsible disclosure practices.” It is for this reason that IBM ISS strongly adheres to its well-established responsible disclosure guidelines.”
The faultlines of this controversy were laid two years ago with the launch by TippingPoint of its Zero Day Initiative, in the days before the company was acquired by current owners 3Com. Under the scheme, researchers have been paid to report vulnerabilities, which the company then incorporates into its subscription-based corporate security services.
From TippingPoint’s perspective, such rewards are simply an effective means of getting professional researchers – including those who hack for profit – to disclose security issues in a responsible way. Others, including ISS, see it as artificially fuelling the discovery process.
ISS’s Lamb remains scornful of this justification: “While the supposed justification behind buying third party vulnerabilities is talked about in altruistic terms of benefiting technology, industry, and security. I don’t buy that. In the simplest terms buying third party vulnerability research is just a cheap for a company to get their hands on vulnerabilities, create the ruse of offering pre-emptive protection with legacy signature based protection technologies, and buying two cent marketing and hype.”