Is American Software More Secure?

Opinion: The government is right to be concerned about the security of its computers, but buying "American" isn't the answer.

A news fad broke out in February: After the controversy over the sale of U.S. port management rights to a Dubai-owned company, the same agency that had vetted the sale announced an investigation into the sale of SourceFire, a company based in the United States, to Check Point, an Israeli company.

Neither sale alarms me and both involve issues that are easy to be a demagogue about. I dont want to get too deep into the ports deal since this is an IT publication; Im sure a second, redundant investigation will now be performed on it and the sale will go through and that will be the end of that.

The software sale should also go through, at least from the point of view of national security.

I dont want to be too hard on the CFIUS (Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States), the U.S. interagency committee, chaired by the U.S. Treasury, that investigates such matters.

At the heart of this issue is that, apparently, the U.S. Government is a client of SourceFire and uses its products to protect computers with sensitive information.

As far as I know, SourceFires products are well-regarded, but it is most known for being the author and maintainer of the famous Snort Intrusion Detection/Prevention program.

Snort is an open-source program, using the GPL for a license, and is fairly popular, at least based on the chatter I see among security professionals. When new threats emerge, one of the first things people ask for is a Snort rule for their own protection.

SourceFire does sell other products, including IDS/IPS appliances, and Im sure these are the products being used by the government. I rather doubt that sensitive government agencies do their security by using an old PC to set up a Linux box with a free copy of Snort, not when theyve got world-class budgets to spend. Snort is not the issue.

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Lets assume Ive guessed right about the facts of the case, since its not totally clear, and ask two questions, similar to those in the ports deal: Is it safe for such products to be under the control of a non-American company, and is there a problem with this specific company?

The non-American part of it is something of a quaint argument for 2006. Especially in the security business, which seems to be the most international of businesses, classifying a big company like Check Point as being foreign or American can be a technicality. Many of these companies are truly international, and even those that appear wholly "American" may be run entirely by immigrants.

In the case of Check Point, perhaps its technically an Israeli company, but thats just a matter of where the CEO lives. Check Point has substantial offices and development facilities in the United States and around the world.

Are they really any less American than a company like Mercury Interactive, which moved its official headquarters to the United States after being born in Israel? Should the government feel nervous about buying products made by Intel, which has large R&D facilities outside of the United States?

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Consider also that software these days is not so much built from the ground as assembled from components, and Id be surprised if companies like SourceFire scrutinize the national origins of every software component they use.

What they probably do is to test and/or analyze the software. If source code is available, audit it. In either case, test the software thoroughly, especially from a security standpoint. There are many great tools for this (including those from—surprise!—Israeli company Beyond Security, which I wrote about recently).

And this is what U.S. government offices should be doing with products from SourceFire: testing them, scrutinizing them, regardless of whether the company is from Maryland or Ramat Gan or Dubai. Where your headquarters is gets you no points in computer security.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. He can be reached at

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