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August 13, 2008

MBTA vs MIT Students Case Continues

A hearing will be held in Boston tomorrow to decide whether or not the restraining order gagging the MIT students from talking about the vulnerabilities they have found should be lifted. Even though the Defcon presentation is widely available and the MBTA disclosed the "Confidential" memo from the MIT students in their court filings, they are seeking a permanent speech injunction. An august group of computer scientists has signed a letter which will be entered into the record for the case. This list includes: Dave Farber of Carnegie Mellon University, Steve Bellovin from Columbia University, David Wagner from UC Berkeley, Dan Wallach from Rice University, Matt Blaze from the University of Pennsylvania, and Bruce Schneier. An excerpt:

We write to express our firm belief that research on security vulnerabilities, and the sensible publication of the results of the research, are critical for scientific advancement, public safety and a robust market for secure technologies. Generally speaking, the norm in our field is that researchers take reasonable steps to protect the individuals using the systems studied. We understand that the student researchers took such steps with regard to their research, notably by planning not to present a critical element of a flaw they found. They did this so that their audience would be unable to exploit the security flaws they uncovered. . . .

The restraining order at issue in this case also fosters a dangerous information imbalance. In this case, for example, it allows the vendors of the technology and the MBTA to claim greater efficacy and security than their products warrant, then use the law to silence those who would reveal the technologies' flaws. In this case, the law gives the public a false sense of security, achieved through law, not technical effectiveness. Preventing researchers from discussing a technology's vulnerabilities does not make them go away - in fact, it may exacerbate them as more people and institutions use and come to rely upon the illusory protection. Yet the commercial purveyors of such technologies often do not want truthful discussions of their products' flaws, and will likely withhold the prior approval or deny researchers access for testing if the law supports that effort. . . .

Yet at the same time that researchers need to act responsibly, vendors should not be granted complete control of the publication of such information, as it appears MBTA sought here. As noted above, vendors and users of such technologies often have an incentive to hide the flaws in the system rather than come clean with the public and take the steps necessary to remedy them. Thus, while researchers often refrain from publishing the technical details necessary to exploit the flaw, a legal ban on discussion of security flaws, such as that contained in the temporary restraining order, is especially troubling.

It will be interesting to see what arguments the MBTA uses to keep the students from speaking on a topic where all the important vulnerability information seems to have already disclosed. Sure the students haven't presented a cookbook exploit tool but they have also stated they have no intention of doing so.

Perhaps the court will investigate what the MBTA's and their technology vendors response has been to the MiFare card vulnerabilities that were disclosed responsibly. If there has been no vigorous response to responsibly disclosed vulnerabilities of many months ago how can they say with a straight face that are truly responding to new security information and just need more time.

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Chris Wysopal, co-founder and CTO of Veracode, is recognized as an expert and a well-known speaker in the information security field. He has given keynotes at computer security events and has testified on Capitol Hill on the subjects of government computer security and how vulnerabilities are discovered in software. His opinions on Internet security are highly sought after and most major print and media outlets have featured stories on Mr. Wysopal and his work. At Veracode, Mr. Wysopal is responsible for the security analysis capabilities of Veracode technology.

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