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Friday, 30 November 2018 08:09

Vulnerability equities process: conflict of interest in UK, claims researcher

Vulnerability equities process: conflict of interest in UK, claims researcher Pixabay

A well-known security researcher claims that there is a massive conflict of interest in the UK's National Cyber Security Centre being a part of the the country's main spy agency, GCHQ, because the focus of the two organisations is at odds with each other.

Mustafa al-Bassam, a former member of the Anonymous hacking group and now a doctoral researcher in London, made his comments following the release by the NCSC of its vulnerability equities process – the circumstances under which it would release to affected companies details of vulnerabilities that came to its knowledge.

In a thread on Twitter, Bassam said the conflict arose from the fact that the NCSC had to co-ordinate and communicate with British companies to ensure they were secure, while the GCHQ was tasked with collecting intelligence on targets - and this could include using hoarded exploits.

Outlining the equities process, Dr Ian Levy, the NCSC's technical director, said: "When we find a security problem, we need to decide what to do. Our default is to tell the vendor and have them fix it, but sometimes - after weighing up the implications - we decide to keep the fact of the vulnerability secret and develop intelligence capabilities with it."

The question of spy agencies releasing knowledge of vulnerabilities to affected companies was thrown into sharp focus in 2017 when a group calling itself the Shadow Brokers dumped a large number of exploits on the Web, all of which it claimed had been crafted by the NSA. Some of these exploits were later used to create ransomware like WannaCry and NotPetya which had devastating effects on a number of organisations.

Bassam said that some targets that were hacked by the Five Eyes intelligence community — a group that brings together spy agencies from the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — were international technology companies. As examples he cited network equipment makers in China and Belgacom in Belgium, adding that these firms could have operations in the UK.

"Given NCSC is part of GCHQ, why should international technology companies with operations in the UK co-ordinate with the NCSC on matters of information security, if they know that the intel they provide them might be shared with GCHQ so that they can be used to hack them?" Bassam asked.

As an example, he said, "NCSC researchers may find a vulnerability in some software, which they let GCHQ retain due to the vulnerability equities process. NCSC also knows that some company that GCHQ is interested in hacking uses said software, because said company shared information with NCSC in the past".

Given this, there was a clear incentive for international companies to share as little information with the NCSC as possible as the data could be shared with the GCHQ. And the latter had "a track record of hacking technology companies to 'Master the Internet'."

Bassam is not the only voice opining that NCSC's being part of GCHQ is not ideal in the long term.

The Royal Society said in a study: "The National Cyber Security Centre represents a helpful and important improvement in the UK’s institutional arrangements for cyber security. However, the Centre will report in to the Government Communications Headquarters.

"Based on the trends and evidence available today this arrangement is unlikely to be ideal in the longer term, when digital systems will be embedded increasingly deeply across society and an increasingly large proportion of uses will be commercial and personal."

The Society, the oldest scientific academy in the world, recommended an independent review of the UK’s future cyber security needs, "focused on the institutional structures needed to support resilient and trustworthy digital systems in the medium and longer term".

It said that the review should look five to 10 years into the future, "to develop options for future governance arrangements that will better reflect the future distributions of benefits and harms across society".

Bassam added that it would "be nice to have at least one tax-payer funded organisation that pays researchers to find and help fix vulnerabilities for a change, instead of using them to hack people, instead of just leaving it private companies like Google's Project Zero with cash to spare".

"Everyone has a vested interest in the security of open source projects and software that the public uses. So I'm not really comfortable with public money being used to hoard exploits, when it could be put to good use i.e. by auditing poorly funded open source projects."

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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