Responsible Disclosure and the Academy.

They say publish or perish, but what happens when publishing puts people's personal information at risk?

Last year I discovered that SSL as it is implemented for server-to-server data transfers in popular software has common, and extremely serious problems. Merchant API's from PayPal, Moneris, Google and others left people's credit card details at risk for interception. I discovered that oauth libraries listed by Twitter were vulnerable -- and found a bunch of other problems that I'm still in disclosure with. It was a big deal, I'd found what computer security folks call a 'class break'.

So I begun a responsible disclosure process. Initiallly I had discovered a vulnerability in a single merchant provider's api and as a good security researcher does, I contacted the vendor -- this quickly went sideways. As a result, I enlisted the help of a local academic and trusted resource of mine, Christopher Parsons. Parsons recommended I get in contact with Tamir Israel, staff lawyer for CIPPIC, and thus begun what was to be (and still is) a nightmarish saga of responsible disclosure and broken cyber security programs.

I've not written this openly about peerjacking before today because this issue is still very much in play, but I feel that because Dan Boneh and his colleagues have published the research that I must respond and set the record straight.

Tamir offered to help me free-of-charge and really went to bat for me, offering legal advice and offering to help with the predicament I was quickly getting myself into. Thanks to Chris and Tamir, we got in contact with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada to disclose the vulnerability and see if it was within their area of responsibility. After a couple phone meetings, it was determined that because there was no evidence of actual data being stolen via this vulnerability, and with me being unable to provide such evidence without engaging in illegal computer hacking, it was determined it was outside their jurisdiction. The privacy commissioner's process, it seems, is about cleaning up data spills, not preventing them. The file was referred to the CCIRC... The Canadian Cyber Incident Response Centre.

I had already emailed CCIRC, but had received no reply. This is a small agency and while they tell me they that they had received my disclosure, its not clear what they had done prior to the privacy commissioner's office becoming involved. The group seems to work silently behind the scenes -- if there was action, I didn't know about it.... But once the privacy commissioner had referred the file, things changed. Tamir and I began what turned into a weekly discussion with CCIRC about the vulnerability -- it culminated in the Cyber Security Information Notice IN11-003. It was new ground for CCIRC (disclosing new zero-day's is not something they had much, if any, experience with) ... I wanted the agency to name names, but they decided against it. The notice contains only a technical description of the vulnerability, but no context for who is at risk. Mom and Pop shops using PayPal, Moneris or Google would likely never see this notice, nor, if they did, would they understand that their business and customers were at risk. Throughout the back n forth, I was rather miffed about the process, but Tamir rightly pointed out that the disclosure was helpful in that it provided a third party look at the vulnerability and would help confirm what I was saying.

I couldn't live with not disclosing the affected software though, and throughout the process I had found a number of other vendors that were affected -- I'd even found Google Code Search and GitHub Search terms that pointed to a -much larger issue- and found other non-php software that was affected... I had disclosed the affected software that I knew about and the code searches to the CCIRC during the development of the information notice, but they hadn't named names. I'm sure they had their reasons, but I had the public to think about. How were mom and pop merchants going to know to patch? What about their customers credit card details and order information?

I decided to take the list of companies I knew had been notified, and who had had time to resolve the issue, and to disclose about the vulnerability in their software. That resulted in ... but that isn't even close to a complete list, and CCIRC is to my knowledge still working on the issue of the GitHub and Google Code Searches. For my part, after the disclosure I continued to work with PayPal and others to get them patched up. PayPal is still working on this issue in their API's and towards merchant disclosure -- which makes the Boneh et al paper so troubling. I never spelled out how the other PayPal API's were affected because the issue is still being resolved... responsibly.

So that brings me to today. Dan Boneh (a well known academic cryptographer) and a number of colleagues have published "The most dangerous code in the world: validating SSL certificates in non-browser software" ... I had been given a headsup in August about the paper coming out and I reached out to Dan....

[Normally I wouldn't share publicly an email I sent, but since I never got a reply, well, its just my own writing....]


Sent on 08/15/2012

Hi Dan,

I was linked this morning to by
<redacted> this morning. Just wanted to let you know that this appears to
be exactly like my prior published work on peerjacking,
( and that informs Government of Canada, CCIRC
cybersecurity notice IN11-003.

I am still in responsible disclosure with a number of vendors on this,
including undisclosed vulnerabilities in other PayPal sdks, and non-php
related vulnerabilities, to which I believe you may be making reference.
I have been withholding a full whitepaper on this research while the
industry addresses and resolves these problems. This issue affects a
wide swath of the credit card processing industry and represents a
threat to critical infrastructure. I would appreciate your team not
disclosing the vulnerabilities in specific software before all
responsible disclosure avenues have been properly exhausted.

I am working with CCIRC and others to responsibly disclose this


Kevin McArthur

I never got a reply, and I even blogged about it before it was released, but today I've noticed that the paper has been made available in PDF to the public. I've read it, and I'm cited in it, but I've made it clear previously that peerjacking affects more than PHP applications and that I've purposefully not disclosed the details of the research due to the ongoing responsible disclosure process. To see this research published within the academy and in the face of my plea to respect the responsible disclosure process troubles me.  However, please know that I tried to make sure this vulnerability was resolved before it was widely disclosed.

Welcome to the world of peerjacking. SSL is dead.