Dan Kaminsky is NOT a hero

Before I launch into my rant about all the swirl that's resulted from Dan Kaminsky's recent disclosure of a DNS flaw, I want to make one thing clear: While I do not know him nor have I worked with him, I nevertheless hold Dan's skills in high regard and respect him as a professional. The DNS flaw behind this is indeed serious. Nothing I'm about to say should be seen as a reflection on him or his work, but rather the sometimes-OCD InfoSec community and online media outlets.

Yesterday I read a column by Robert Vamosi, linked off of C|Net, that made me vomit a little bit in my mouth. His comments on Kaminsky would make the reader think that the man just saved the entire world+dog for today and the rest of time from certain doom from some three-headed unstoppable eating machine with minty fresh breath but a bad, bad attitude. Heck, he may just be the second coming. Oh man, that means I'm going to hell for not capitalizing He. Allow me to quote from the article titled - no kidding - The man who changed internet security:

There have been other multiparty patch releases, but never has there been one on such a massive scale.

What he [...] did over the last few months was not only responsible but extraordinary.

all future vulnerability disclosures could benefit from his example.

With the DNS flaw, Kaminsky was in a very weird position. What he found wrong [...] wasn't just within one vendor's product, it cut across various products

He has changed Internet security, and done so for the better of us all.

This is a great amalgamation of all of the idolatry directed at Dan, all in one column. To categorize all of this, many people - professionals in the field (self-proclaimed or otherwise) - seem to be under any combination of the following false impressions:
  1. The scope of this issue is without precedent. This is simply not true. Especially in the late 90's and early 2000's as attackers began seriously exploring computer vulnerabilities, there have been a number of widespread service implementation problems - or problems affecting a hugely critical piece of software (think: Bind before many people used MS's DNS server). A recent example is the vulnerability in the implementation of BGP by every major router manufacturer in 2007 which could lead to a spoofed denial-of-service and ZOMG TAKE DOWN THE WHOLE INNERWEBS!
  2. Having to coordinate patches between vendors is unusual. While no doubt most vulnerabilities impact only a single vendor, it's also not uncommon to find a second vendor, perhaps borrowing from the same segment of code (I'm looking at you Unix), that is also vulnerable. For an easy example, see (1), or many vulnerabilities found in open source/GPL code over the years.
  3. This vulnerability is new and completely unexpected. While we won't know for sure until this is discussed at BlackHat, there is evidence suggesting this isn't true. People have pointed out that similar techniques to poison DNS have already been discussed. We can certainly say the severity of the exploit seems new, but beyond that, any responsible discussion on the topic needs to wait until all the facts are in front of the public for peer review. I wouldn't say this is patently false, but I would say to anyone making this assertion, "not so fast there..."
  4. Responsible disclosure is somehow novel, invented, or revolutionized by Dan Kaminsky. These people either have had their head in the ground since 2000 or so when the debate between full and responsible disclosure first erupted on BugTraq, or they never understood what the term meant. At the time of the writing of this entry, a Google search for "responsible vulnerability disclosure" returned "about" 287,000 pages.
To quote his recent blog entry, he's been "the beneficiary of what can only be described as 'redonkulous amounts of press'." To wit, there is plenty of good press discussing the vulnerability and how to fix it - that's obviously not what I'm talking about. Dan's a great professional, I hate to see fanboys like this surface and cheapen - rather than reinforce - his m4d sk1lz.

To Dan: Kudos. To all the fanboys and fangirls: Please to be redirecting your significant energy and time to something a little more productive.


Dan Kaminsky said...

Just thought I'd post to agree with you, at least partially. I did not at all invent responsible disclosure. Indeed, it is only because so many people had already gone through the experience of fixing things based on external research, that I was able to get this level of support at all. So, seriously, on the shoulders of giants.

I do think the absolute lack of Vendor BS here is astonishing. I expected much more pushback. What I got was people flying in from around the world on a couple week's notice, and a synchronized release date. Oh, and operational secrecy -- no leaks. That was pretty cool.

It's a cool bug, worse than you realize, and the vendors didn't suck at all about it. Vamosi's story, yeah, bit over the top...maybe it'll at least get people to patch? :)

I agree though. I'm no hero, just a geek with a really scary bug, trying to do the right thing and getting lots of help from people who've been through this before (it's not exactly the first big bug in BIND, as you note).

Michael Cloppert said...

Thanks for the feedback, Dan, and for taking my comments as I'd intended them - not as a slant on you or your work. I get irritated with hype in our industry, especially when it detracts from the real work or credit that's due.

I'm willing to take your word that the bug is worse than I realize. As a techie, however, I'm sure you understand my reticence here.

I said it in my post, but I'll reiterate: very good work, sir. I will say that it's not often I hear of vendors addressing security flaws with a lack of BS - the team I work on routinely discovers exploits of Office products, for example, and not a single one has been patched without quite a fight. I'm glad to hear that things were different here in a more far-reaching service like DNS, and genuinely hope the vendors have set a precedent for themselves.

But, as I say, I'll reserve judgment :-)

Dan Kaminsky said...


Totally understand your reticence. It's flat-out weird to have this much hype floating around, and have it *not* about something completely irrelevant.

Please be sure to blog about your thoughts of the bug(s), once August 6th rolls around. Whether I ever subject myself to a month of this ever again really depends on whether people think it was the right thing to do. Let me tell you, it ain't easy :)