The IT security culture, hackers vs. industry consortia

In a previous life I used to do a lot of IT security work, probably even at a time when most people had no idea what IT security actually is. I grew up with the Chaos Computer Club, as it was a great place to meet people with common interests, skills and ethics. People were hacking (aka 'doing security research') for fun, to grow their skills, to advance society, to point out corporate stupidities and to raise awareness about issues.

I've always shared any results worth noting with the general public. Whether it was in RFID security, on GSM security, TETRA security, etc.

Even more so, I always shared the tools, creating free software implementations of systems that - at that time - were very difficult to impossible to access unless you worked for the vendors of related device, who obviously had a different agenda then to disclose security concerns to the general public.

Publishing security related findings at related conferences can be interpreted in two ways:

On the one hand, presenting at a major event will add to your credibility and reputation. That's a nice byproduct, but that shouldn't be the primarily reason, unless you're some kind of a egocentric stage addict.

On the other hand, presenting findings or giving any kind of presentation or lecture at an event is a statement of support for that event. When I submit a presentation at a given event, I think carefully if that topic actually matches the event.

The reason that I didn't submit any talks in recent years at CCC events is not that I didn't do technically exciting stuff that I could talk about - or that I wouldn't have the reputation that would make people consider my submission in the programme committee. I just thought there was nothing in my work relevant enough to bother the CCC attendees with.

So when Holger 'zecke' Freyther and I chose to present about our recent journeys into exploring modern cellular modems at the annual Chaos Communications Congress, we did so because the CCC Congress is the right audience for this talk. We did so, because we think the people there are the kind of community of like-minded spirits that we would like to contribute to. Whom we would like to give something back, for the many years of excellent presentations and conversations had.

So far so good.

However, in 2016, something happened that I haven't seen yet in my 17 years of speaking at Free Software, Linux, IT Security and other conferences: A select industry group (in this case the GSMA) asking me out of the blue to give them the talk one month in advance at a private industry event.

I could hardly believe it. How could they? Who am I? Am I spending sleepless nights and non-existing spare time into security research of cellular modems to give a free presentation to corporate guys at a closed industry meeting? The same kind of industries that create the problems in the first place, and who don't get their act together in building secure devices that respect people's privacy? Certainly not. I spend sleepless nights of hacking because I want to share the results with my friends. To share it with people who have the same passion, whom I respect and trust. To help my fellow hackers to understand technology one step more.

If that kind of request to undermine the researcher/authors initial publication among friends is happening to me, I'm quite sure it must be happening to other speakers at the 33C3 or other events, too. And that makes me very sad. I think the initial publication is something that connects the speaker/author with his audience.

Let's hope the researchers/hackers/speakers have sufficiently strong ethics to refuse such requests. If certain findings are initially published at a certain conference, then that is the initial publication. Period. Sure, you can ask afterwards if an author wants to repeat the presentation (or a similar one) at other events. But pre-empting the initial publication? Certainly not with me.

I offered the GSMA that I could talk on the importance of having FOSS implementations of cellular protocol stacks as enabler for security research, but apparently this was not to their interest. Seems like all they wanted is an exclusive heads-up on work they neither commissioned or supported in any other way.

And btw, I don't think what Holger and I will present about is all that exciting in the first place. More or less the standard kind of security nightmares. By now we are all so numbed down by nobody considering security and/or privacy in design of IT systems, that is is hardly any news. IoT how it is done so far might very well be the doom of mankind. An unstoppable tsunami of insecure and privacy-invading devices, built on ever more complex technology with way too many security issues. We shall henceforth call IoT the Industry of Thoughtlessness.