What did you really expect?


[tags]reformed hackers[/tags]
A news story that hit the wires last week was that someone with a history of breaking into systems, who had “reformed” and acted as a security consultant, was arrested for new criminal behavior.  The press and blogosphere seemed to treat this as surprising.  They shouldn’t have.

I have been speaking and writing for nearly two decades on this general issue, as have others (William Hugh Murray, a pioneer and thought leader in security,  is one who comes to mind).  Firms that hire “reformed” hackers to audit or guard their systems are not acting prudently any more than if they hired a “reformed” pedophile to babysit their kids.  First of all, the ability to hack into a system involves a skill set that is not identical to that required to design a secure system or to perform an audit.  Considering how weak many systems are, and how many attack tools are available, “hackers” have not necessarily been particularly skilled.  (The same is true of “experts” who discover attacks and weaknesses in existing systems and then publish exploits, by the way—that behavior does not establish the bona fides for real expertise.  If anything, it establishes a disregard for the community it endangers.)

More importantly, people who demonstrate a questionable level of trustworthiness and judgement at any point by committing criminal acts present a risk later on.  Certainly it is possible that they will learn the error of their ways and reform.  However, it is also the case that they may slip later and revert to their old ways.  Putting some of them in situations of trust with access to items of value is almost certainly too much temptation.  This has been established time and again in studies of criminals of all types, especially those who commit fraud.  So, why would a prudent manager take a risk when better alternatives are available?

Even worse, circulating stories of criminals who end up as highly-paid consultants are counterproductive, even if they are rarely true.  That is the kind of story that may tempt some without strong ethics to commit crimes as a shortcut to fame and riches.  Additionally, it is insulting to the individuals who work hard, study intently, and maintain a high standard of conduct in their careers—hiring criminals basically states that the honest, hardworking real experts are fools.  Is that the message we really want to put forward?

Luckily, most responsible managers now understand, even if the press and general public don’t, that criminals are simply that—criminals.  They may have served their sentences, which now makes them former criminals…but not innocent.  Pursuing criminal activity is not—and should not be—a job qualification or career path in civilized society.  There are many, many historical examples we can turn to for examples, including those of hiring pirates as privateers and train robbers as train guards.  Some took the opportunity to go straight, but the instances of those who abused trust and made off with what they were protecting illustrate that it is a big risk to take.  It also is something we have learned to avoid.  We are long past the point where those of us in computing should get with the program.

So, what of the argument that there aren’t enough real experts, or they cost too much to hire?  Well, what is their real value? If society wants highly-trained and trustworthy people to work in security, then society needs to devote more resources to support the development of curriculum and professional standards.  And it needs to provide reasonable salaries to those people, both to encourage and reward their behavior and expertise.  We’re seeing more of that now than a dozen years ago, but it is still the case that too many managers (and government officials) want security on the cheap, and then act surprised when they get hacked.  I suppose they also buy their Rolex and Breitling watches for $50 from some guy in a parking lot and then act surprised and violated when the watch stops a week later.  What were they really expecting?


Posted by Randall W. Robinson
on Thursday, September 20, 2007 at 11:49 AM

I agree with the overall sentiment of your comments. However, I have found the line of black vs. gray hats to be drawn a bit curvy. I had two direct encounters that dove-tail directly into your comments.  While at NASA, I heard that Alex Muffett (creator of the original crack application), was loosing his account. I found value in his application in security testing, so I started the paperwork to grant him an account. In addition, I went to Milo Medin to arrange communications to access that account. Milo became immediately concerned that I was going to allow Alex an account. Ultimately I dropped my attempt.  Second was Len Rose (AKA Terminus of LoD and NetSys fame). I had provided Len access to our systems, as he was doing work to help with X.25 connectivity.  He did this work well. In addition, he provided solid recommendations to help improve security on my systems.  My point is that each case should be viewed on its own merit. Some are misunderstood, some are due another chance, and some are just a waste of skin.  I do completely agree that one skill does not imply a second… any thirteen year-old with a root kit can find a system to crack, but there are some individuals with talent that can and should be directed towards productive avenues.


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