Andrew Myers

Security, programming languages, and computer systems

A Hippocratic Oath for computer security research?

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When I was a graduate student at MIT, at some point we discovered that all of our systems had been compromised. I happened to have earlier hacked up a network monitoring tool that was a very graphical version of tcpdump, enabling us to rapidly figure out that the attacker was coming into via a computer in Germany. The hacker was reading our email, so when I communicated this fact to others in the group via email, I suddenly got a “talk” request and found myself chatting with them. They promised to go away. But — and this was surprising to me — they thought they were doing something completely ethical and appropriate. In fact, they were doing us a favor by showing us the vulnerabilities of our systems. I suppose that has a grain of truth to it, in much the same way that a burglar who breaks into your house shows you you need better locks.

Are researchers who focus on attacking systems really any better? Yes, if they clearly explain the vulnerabilities. And doubly yes, if they show how to ameliorate the vulnerabilities. But I worry that as the pendulum of the security community swings toward demonstrating attacks, the research community is exposing vulnerabilities faster than they are fixing them. Clearly this is not a sustainable path — if continued, we all just become less secure because vulnerabilities are being disseminated to a wide audience and solutions are not. We have the joy of knowing the truth. But pragmatically things are being made worse for all the ordinary users relying on computers.

In many research communities, discovering the truth is all that researchers need to be concerned with. But it seems to me that the security community has a special responsibility to make security better. I would hope that every security researcher would strive to, in the balance, do more good than harm. If every security researcher did work that exposed more vulnerabilities than it fixed, the world would be a worse place. If we accept Kant’s dictum, that observation implies that it is unethical for any security researcher to behave in this way. So my question is, do we need a version of the Hippocratic Oath for computer security research?


Author: Andrew Myers

I am a professor of computer science at Cornell University. It is too hard to build trustworthy software systems using conventional systems APIs. I work on higher-level, language-based abstractions for programming that better address important cross-cutting concerns: security, extensibility, persistence, distribution.

One thought on “A Hippocratic Oath for computer security research?

  1. You seem to be forgetting about an important aspect of computer security. One cannot assume that everyone discovering a vulnerability is going to make that information public. If Eve is looking for ways to compromise a system, Alice should be striving to discover all those ways.