BLACK HAT - Ethical hacker group to counter 'black PR'

A self-styled ethical hacker group plans to counter moves by companies to bury security vulnerability information

A self-styled ethical hacker group plans to counter moves by companies that attempt to bury security vulnerability information in order to protect their businesses.

Companies spend a lot of money on crisis management teams that try to keep a lid on situations that could alarm their customers, so-called "black public relations," said Petko D. Petkov of GNU Citizen -- a close-knit group of blogging researchers who have published several big scoops on software vulnerabilities.

Black PR is a bit of a black art. It can involve pressure on people, careful sculpting of the media and other ways to keep calm during a crisis situation, Petkov said this week at the Black Hat conference in Amsterdam.

Petkov's organization has been no stranger to controversy, and it has encountered pressure before from small companies concerning security vulnerabilties.

GNU Citizen sticks by the tenets of responsible disclosure, which involved contacting companies that have problems with their software and giving them enough notice to fix the bug before it is publicly published. Nonetheless, they've been blamed by companies for enabling attacks on their systems.

"You don't really want to get on the wrong terms with the wrong company," Petkov said.

GNU Citizen's "antiblack PR" unit looks at the broad implications of security problems -- a company's economic interests, what data may be compromised -- and formulates a big picture on the machinations of a company and what's at stake when, for example, banking systems are compromised.

Part of the problem is the economics of fixing faulty software. Creating and distribution patches is very expensive, and a few vendors would rather fly below the radar than fix them, Petkov said.

"Most of the companies, they just don't fix them [software problems]," Petkov said. "They build a big black PR group to counter stories."

Some security situations are just too big to cover up. Retailer TJX suffered one of the largest data breaches ever last year. Around 45.6 million credit and debit card numbers were pilfered from its system. But many other security problems receive scarce attention.

Petkov said the antiblack PR project rivals GNU Citizen's work on security research. "This is actually one of the biggest games in the world to me," he said.

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Jeremy Kirk

IDG News Service

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