Saturday, August 30, 2008

McIrony: An unexpected response from McAfee

Irony: incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.

Right before Black Hat, I put together what I believed was a pretty strong arguement against McAfee Secure - Hacker Safe, at a level heretofore unexplored. I believe it was more damaging than anything I've said to date, and as such, presented potential risk for me. So I ran it by some friends before publishing it. Then a most extraordinary thing happened. I had a long chat with Nate McFeters, who described an awakening he'd recently experienced. He shared with me the belief that a better approach to potentially negative security research might be to try to create a positive outcome, and worry less about press cycles or exposure, the 15 minutes of fame if you will. He pointed to people like Mark Dowd as an example of people who conduct crushingly good research, and steer clear of the petty, ego driven bulls**t.
There I sat, repose like the thinking man, frozen for minutes. "Nate", I said, "I think you're right."
What do I aspire to as an information security professional; more readership or street cred than the next guy, or the respect of my peers for contributing to the greater good? Attention, press cycles, 15 minutes...it all has its allure, trust me on this.
But at the end of the day, I really do want to contribute to the greater good.
So I did something different. I sent my findings to McAfee and offered them an opportunity to respond, rather than publish first, ask questions later.
Here's the real kicker.
They responded.
I had a three hour lunch this past Thursday with two gentlemen from McAfee, who flew up from the Bay Area to Seattle to have a face to face with me. This, all by itself, speaks volumes to me. In addition to meeting with Kirk Lawrence, the new Director of Product Management for McAfee Secure, there I sat with, of all people, Joe Pierini, the very guy who has suffered more than his share of abuse, up to and including the Pwnie. As I have been a direct contributor and participant in heckling Joe, you can imagine our meeting could have been uncomfortable. It was not.
I have had expectations of McAfee and Scan Alert that to date have not been met, or my (your) perception has been that they have not been met.
This meeting was designed as an opportunity to voice some of these expectations, and see if McAfee, in turn, believed there was any merit to them.
Surprisingly, at least as spoken, we weren't all that far apart.
While, as a naive idealist, I believe that security should come before conversions, I am also grounded enough of a realize that the most attainable goal can be a marriage of both. This premise frames my expectations of McAfee.
Can they not be more of a "thought leader" for all the Ma & Pa websites who rely on McAfee Secure, first for a higher conversion rate, then security?
Can they not hold merchants to a higher standard, without alienating them and losing business?
Can they not embrace the security research community in a fashion that McAfee, the security community, the merchants, and consumers can all benefit from?
Can they not be more transparent in their approach, providing more details and feedback about their methods, their findings, and their vision?
I know McAfee Secure - Hacker Safe scans can find vulnerabilities.
I know they report the vulnerabilities to merchants.
What happens thereafter is where things begin to break down.
Can the scan engine be improved to find more vulns? Sure. That's really not that big a deal; technology can always be improved.
But, regarding holding merchants to a higher standard; therein is the whole point of this debate.
Anyone can throw a badge on a site.
But what happens when the site proves vulnerable is the key. I'll be candid here: I don't give a damn about the merchant at that point; it's the consumer who is at risk and needs something better from McAfee and their peers.
So, here begins a different approach. I know that making changes at a company the size of McAfee can be likened to the three miles it takes to turn around an aircraft carrier. I'm willing to work with them, and allow for a positive outcome.
I have been told that, in two or three weeks, we can expect a published standard, that clearly defines exactly what the McAfee Secure product offering adheres to, inclusive of their expectations for merchant remediation timelines, potential badge downgrades for unresolved vulnerabilities, and hopefully even a more clear stance on XSS.
I have been told that I will have the opportunity to discuss this standard, and invite feedback. Any standard is better than no standard.
I have also been told that this is just the beginning of changes that will lead to more of what I have hoped for in my expectations, over the next 6 months or so.
I am hopeful that we can take McAfee at their word, and even if slowly, see a positive outcome.

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1 comment:

stripes said...

So what's going on with this? Was it all hot air or did they actually make changes?