Mickos on Security: Tech Is the Problem, People Are the Solution

Former MySQL Marten Mickos, now CEO of security vendor HackerOne, admits to a security debt that open-source must now pay.

Marten Mickos

Marten Mickos first made a name for himself as the CEO of a pair of successful open-source vendors—MySQL and Eucalyptus Systems, both of which have been acquired. Now he's the CEO of security vendor HackerOne, and at the Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit keynote on March 29, Mickos publicly apologized for the early security shortcomings of open-source companies, including his own.

"I'm here to repay some old security debts because back in the 1990s when Linus [Torvalds] started with Linux, he didn't think about security, and when MySQL started in 1995, we didn't think about security," Mickos (pictured) said. "We just built an easy-to-use, fast, robust database because on the Internet you only had fun things that were not that serious."

The Internet today is very serious and so too is the need for security in all forms of software development, including open source. As such, Mickos said he feels that it's his responsibility to help clean up the state of software security. While software has been shown to have weaknesses, Mickos argued that security technology itself is not the solution.

"The security industry is fundamentally flawed," Mickos said. "The world is spending $80 billion a year buying all kinds of hardware and software products that solve some part of security, but still don't provide enough protection."

HackerOne, which Mickos joined in November 2015, is in the bug bounty business, running vulnerability disclosure programs for vendors that reward security researchers for reporting flaws.

"For a decade or two, the general thinking has been that humans are weak and have all kinds of flaws and the solution is more technology—just throw more firewalls on your system and it will work," he said. "Now finally we realize that maybe it's the other way around: Tech is the problem and humans are the solution."

In Mickos' view, technology is good at finding well-defined problems, but that's the challenge with modern security—it's not well-defined. He noted that today it's very difficult to know where new bugs will be found, and he believes the best way of finding interesting flaws is with humans.

As it turns out, there are humans all over the planet, and by crowdsourcing the collective capability, which is something that open source does well, many problems can be solved, Mickos said. The idea of exposing bugs in the open is one that Mickos strongly believes in, just as he believes in open source.

"In the traditional security space you keep your flaws secret, you keep your problems secret, and that's completely wrong," he said.

The idea of keeping security open is actually an old idea that needs to be remembered, Mickos said. He noted that Kerckhoffs's principle, which was defined in 1883 by August Kerckhoffs on cryptography, advocates that the design of a system not require secrecy. That said, Mickos said that while the implementation of a system should be open, the keys should remain secret.

"It is in openness where security truly happens," he said.

By being open and letting people look at code to find flaws, more flaws can be fixed than any one individual or company could do on its own. Mickos noted that by using the stochastic power of crowdsourcing, the ill-defined problems of security will find solutions.

From a vendor response perspective, Mickos said speed is of the essence, both for responding to vulnerabilities disclosures and for patching exploits.

"An easy way to destroy security is to be slow," he said.

Overall, Mickos emphasized that that open-source community, in particular, has a security debt it now needs to pay to fix some of the errors of the past, largely due to the simple fact that security wasn't always a primary focus. In the modern world, he said, security needs to be part of the development process and carry through the software life cycle.

"Back in 1990s, we were like open-source hippies—everything was fun and everything was allowed," Mickos said. "Now we need to be responsible open-source citizens and build security into the whole framework of software development."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.