Cisco suit settled but debate rages

An unsuccessful attempt by Cisco Systems Inc. and Internet Security Systems Inc. to quash discussion of security flaws in Cisco's Internetwork Operating System resulted in a lawsuit against a former ISS researcher and against Black Hat Inc. and has added another twist to the ongoing debate over releasing details of software holes to the public.

Last Wednesday, Cisco and ISS filed a joint lawsuit in U.S. District Court in San Jose, Calif., charging Michael Lynn and Seattle-based Black Hat with copyright infringement, misappropriation of trade secrets and breach of contract. The companies also obtained a temporary restraining order against Lynn and Black Hat to prevent them from discussing the flaw in IOS.

The moves received a mixed reaction from members of the IT security community, where Opinions differ about the proper procedures researchers and hackers should follow when discussing software vulnerabilities.

Lynn's presentation at the Black Hat Briefings here last week, titled "The Holy Grail: Cisco IOS Shellcode and Remote Execution," covered his ISS-funded research into flaws in IOS that could allow attackers to amplify the effects of existing vulnerabilities in IOS. Lynn's strategy could give attackers access to the IOS shell, from which attackers could control a Cisco router running IOS.

An 11th-hour decision by ISS, in Champaign, Ill., and Cisco, also in San Jose, to withdraw support for Lynn's talk to give Cisco more time to address the flaws led to a dramatic series of events. Cisco sent representatives to the show to physically remove copies of Lynn's presentation, going so far as to rip about 20 pages from the conference materials. They also demanded that CDs containing the presentation not be distributed.

Last Wednesday, conference organizers appeared to honour the companies' request to spike the discussion, and attendees at Lynn's scheduled talk were initially told that the IOS exploit would not be discussed. But in an unusual turn of events, Lynn told the audience that he had just quit ISS and would discuss the hole. He gave a full presentation on the IOS flaw to the cheers of a packed conference hall.

Lynn said he was motivated by concerns that suppressing the information could lead to a "digital Pearl Harbor" if malicious hackers or online criminals discovered the same technique he developed and they crafted an Internet worm to take advantage of it.

But those at the show and in the security community expressed differing opinions on Lynn's action.

Stephen Toulouse, security program manager at the Microsoft Security Response Center, said the imbroglio around Lynn's talk is an example of why Microsoft Corp., of Redmond, Wash., developed a policy of "responsible disclosure" of security vulnerabilities, which asks those who discover security holes to refrain from publicizing details about them until the affected software vendor has had an opportunity to develop and release a patch.

But that policy can tip the scales too far in favour of software vendors, which are at their own discretion to address security issues raised by researchers, said Alan Paller, director of research at The SANS Institute, in Bethesda, Md.

However, experts say that while the security holes are unpatched and undisclosed, they put companies and individuals at risk. "We're making reverse engineering code illegal, but criminals don't follow the law. They reverse engineer code and find the holes," said Paller.

Late last week, the parties settled the suit, with Lynn agreeing to surrender his IOS research materials and refrain from speaking about the flaws publicly.

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