The billions of dollars companies shell out for database software so that their most precious corporate assets will be both available and secure create a powerful motive for a vendor to want to keep any security vulnerabilities from becoming public.
The central issue is often protecting the vendors brand name, if not the actual security of its customers. As an analyst, I have personally felt the wrath of vendors if I were to even hint in writing that their databases might not be as secure as their marketing promises.
Certainly security is no laughing matter, either for the vendor or the customers who may be running database software that is vulnerable to attack. I believe it is interesting from an end users perspective, however, to see how different vendors react when flaws are uncovered.
In a recent article authored by Oracles chief security officer, Mary Ann Davidson, she charges that self-serving security researchers are the real problem that the industry faces.
She acknowledges that there are very good security researches out there, but says they are the ones who keep their mouths shut regarding security flaws. This is not a new theme for Ms. Davidson, but it got me thinking about the implications of her diatribe against security researchers.
If a security flaw exists and no one hears about it, are customers really vulnerable? Being a strong supporter of the Bill of Rights (especially the First Amendment) and a former history major, I tend to believe we are all safer in an open society than we are in a closed one.
Perhaps I am being too cynical, but I believe that just because a DBA is not aware of a potential security threat doesnt mean a hacker who specializes in such things wouldnt know, even if the flaw wasnt announced in an article in the Wall Street Journal.
Todays ubiquitous communications infrastructure makes secrets obsolete. (We could even argue that it makes truth obsolete, but thats a different debate.)
We all know there are bad people out there looking to exploit weaknesses in the worlds information infrastructure: some for kicks, bragging rights or what have you, some to commit fraud or gain some intelligence that has monetary value to a third party.
Whatever the reason, they are out there, and the existence of security researchers that spend their days looking for vulnerabilities is, in my opinion a good thing, regardless of their level of discretion.
I think Ms. Davidsons problem with these researchers (at least the ones that go public) is that they make Oracles products appear to be vulnerable. This in turn places a great deal of stress on Ms. Davidson, which is to be expected when you work for a company that is bold enough to market its database as “unbreakable.”
Larry Ellison might as well have ordered his marketing team to change the “O” in Oracles logo to look like a bulls-eye. How happy every Oracle customer must be to know that hackers all over the world are being dared to try and break into an Oracle database!
The truth is that all databases are vulnerable to attack, marketing nonsense aside. I also believe, as Ms. Davidson points out, that not all vendors are “indifferent slugs” when it comes to reacting to reported vulnerabilities. I just dont believe that part of the response should be to kill the messenger.
Charles Garry is an independent industry analyst based in Simsbury, Conn. He is a former vice president with META Groups Technology Research Services.