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Report security vulns at your peril

From whistleblower to suspect ...

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Has it really come to this? Researchers are now so wary of reporting security vulnerabilities that some infosec experts in academia are advising their student charges to walk away from problems.

Pascal Meunier, author of the Cassandra system, and a researcher at the Centre for Education and Research in Information and Assurance (CERIAS) at Purdue University, reckons it has become too risky to report security flaws in websites to their administrators. His opinion was formed after reporting a vulnerability in custom software on a production website discovered by one of his students.

The site was subsequently hacked, using a different vulnerability, leading police to treat him as a potential suspect. The student involved agreed to come forward, thereby diffusing the situation. But it could easily have been a different story that left Meunier with the ethical dilemma of disclosing the identity of his source under threat of putting his job at risk, because police tend to treat those reporting security holes as hackers.

A second problem is that site administrators tend to dismiss security reports without seeing evidence as holes. But producing an exploit that demonstrates a security hole could be construed as a hacking attack unless a researcher goes to the trouble of getting written authorisation.

Meunier's opinion is informed by the case of Eric McCarty, an IT worker who faces hacking charges after allegedly breaching a university's website while investigating a suspected flaw. McCarty hadn't obtained permission to look at the online application system of the University of Southern California. SecurityFocus has more on this case here.

Meunie says students in his facility ought to be able to report security problems anonymously through an approved person. However, sysadmins and the police are suspicious of such whistleblowing activity, as Muenier discovered.

The experience has led him to advise his students not to report vulnerabilities on active websites because there is "no safe way" to report a vulnerability. "If you find strange behaviors that may indicate that a website is vulnerable, don't try to confirm if it's actually vulnerable," he advises. ®

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