Tech Allies Lobby to Keep U.S. Rule From Fettering Security Research

Criticism from a coalition of technology companies caused the U.S. government to delay implementing rules that could have hobbled security research, but the battle is far from over.  

U.S. Security Rule

When the U.S. Department of Commerce proposed a rule to regulate the international trade and sharing of "intrusion software," worried security firms immediately went on the defense.

Industry giants, such as Symantec and FireEye, teamed up with well-known technology firms, such as Cisco and Google, to criticize the regulations. The proposed rules, published in May, would cause "significant unintended consequences" that would "negatively impact—rather than improve—the state of cyber-security," Cisco stated in a letter to the Commerce Dept.'s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS).

The Commerce Department pulled the proposal in late July to go back to the drawing board, but companies are already concerned about a second draft of the rules.

Security firms rely on international teams of researchers to find and fix vulnerabilities, analyze security threats and build software with offensive capabilities to test defenses—all activities that could be threatened by any future policy that regulates the cross-border sharing of exploit code and vulnerability details, Jen Ellis, senior director of community and public affairs for software security firm Rapid7, told eWEEK.

"The reality is that this rule could very seriously impact the ability of security researchers to collaborate and their ability to participate with vendors around the world," she said.

"Given that we now live in a digital economy, that does not have borders, we need to be able to share information worldwide. But if we weaken the security of the products we rely on, we all lose as a result."

While the current battle is focused on U.S. firms, the threat is an international one. As breaches continue to escalate, world governments are searching for policy weapons to help defend against cyber-criminals and to limit oppressive nations' access to surveillance and monitoring tools.

The 42 nations that have signed the Wassenaar Arrangement, a treaty agreement that aims to prevent the buildup of munitions and dual-use technologies that could destabilize regions, have pledged to implement regulations that control intrusion software and exploits.

The United States is only the latest nation to work to implement a policy on intrusion software. Japan already has. In early September, Hewlett-Packard revealed that its Zero-Day Initiative (ZDI) would no longer sponsor the Pwn2Own competition at the annual PacWest conference in Tokyo because of concerns that Japan's implementation of the Wassenaar agreement could make put the company and researchers at risk.

"Due to the complexity of obtaining real-time import/export licenses in countries that participate in the Wassenaar Arrangement, the ZDI has notified conference organizer, Dragos Ruiu, that it will not be holding the Pwn2Own contest at PacSecWest in November," the firm said in a statement provided to eWEEK.

The Wassenaar definition of intrusion software focuses on programs that are designed to circumvent detection tools or protective countermeasures and which extract or modify data or run external code.

While the definition is narrower than the U.S. rule, it still makes many tools and techniques used to defend networks—including penetration testing—subject to the costs and delays of license approval, Mark Kuhr, CTO and co-founder of Synack, told eWEEK.

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...