Ethics of Cyber Security: To Disclose or Not? 

by | Apr 1, 2024

In a recent panel discussion, a thought-provoking question was posed to us, one that delves into the murky waters of cyber security and governmental responsibility. The query centered on the obligation of governments regarding the vulnerabilities they discover and utilize for intelligence and espionage, especially in the context of public safety. This conversation took us on a deep dive into the ethical quandaries faced by nation-states in the cyber realm. Consider the scenario where a government entity, in pursuit of national security, stumbles upon a significant vulnerability—like the notorious BlueKeep or the SMB flaw exploited by WannaCry. The discovery places the government at a crossroads: to disclose or not to disclose? 

THE IMPLICATION 

The implications of this decision are monumental. On the one hand, disclosing the vulnerability to the software vendor kickstarts the creation of a patch, a necessary step towards safeguarding the digital ecosystem. Yet, the very act of disclosure and subsequent patch announcement serves as a beacon for nefarious actors, who, aware of the vulnerability, waste no time exploiting it. This sets off a precarious race against time to patch systems before they fall prey to attacks. 

THE PROCESS 

The process typically unfolds as follows: A governmental entity uncovers a vulnerability within a commonly used software suite. The Department of Homeland Security subsidiary entities (e.g., the national CERT), adhering to protocol, issue a notification to all public organizations, inadvertently alerting everyone, including adversaries, to the existence of this vulnerability. Subsequently, the vendor releases an official patch, leading to the creation and documentation of a new CVE (Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures). The responsibility then shifts to organizations to deploy this patch, a critical phase where public duty intersects with private action. Despite the urgency, many organizations delay this essential step, waiting for an opportune moment that might never arrive, ultimately leaving them vulnerable to attack. 

THE DILEMMA 

This dilemma shows the delicate balance between public duty and private action. The government’s role in securing cyberspace is undeniably crucial, but so is the responsibility of private organizations to act swiftly in applying patches and securing their networks. The unfolding of events from the discovery of a vulnerability to the deployment of a patch reveals a nuanced battleground where national interests, public safety, and private sector engagement converge. 

THE DECISION 

The decision on whether a nation-state should inform its domestic defenders about a discovered vulnerability goes beyond simple operational tactics; it’s deeply rooted in ethical deliberation. This debate highlights the necessity for a comprehensive strategy that not only consistently assesses the effectiveness of security measures but also can address vulnerabilities throughout the security infrastructure, irrespective of their perceived criticality or severity. From the standpoint of ensuring robust security hardening, it should be acted upon without delay if there is an opportunity to strengthen defenses without hindering business operations. 

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