Thursday, 24 January 2013

Dawson College: What Island Are You On?

I've been viewing the growing story about Ahmed Al-Khabaz, a Computer Science student at Dawson College in Montreal, Canada, who was expelled for running a security scan against their public web presence to discover if a flaw he found was resolved. I stumbled on a subsequent interview with prominent IT Security professional Chris Wysopal. I hadn't heard of him, but when I saw he was previously associated with l0pht Heavy Industries my eyes snapped open.

This guy has credentials, and I don't know of an IT professional active around 1997 to 2003 who hadn't heard of, or actually used, l0pthcrack, often to solve real-world problems. First and foremost a password auditing tool it can be used maliciously, but the so can a toaster oven. It is a piece of code art: Necessary, useful and (at the time) industry-shaking.

White Hat hacking is a tricky business. Even I've done it, against a bank no less, fully in the knowledge that I was doing something the system owners would be very unhappy about. In some cases it can get you arrested. I was was pleased with the results when my concerns were taken seriously and fixed fairly quickly. I've worked in financial services companies and know their software release process is iceberg slow so this was very reassuring. There's one thing Mr Al-Khabaz and I both know that drives thousands around the world to the same end: I'm at risk.

Dawson College is hand-wringing and special pleading: "the law ... forbids us from discussing your personal student files" is in this case weak. I am pretty sure the former student would agree to a waiver of his right to privacy to clear the air, but I have seen no mention of an offer. Fourteen out the fifteen professors convened voted for his expulsion, for doing what some professionals get paid extremely well to do (even I've been offered this job): Evaluate the security of publicly-accessible websites. I would like someone better informed than me to comment on what the implications would be for the institution if it was discovered a breach because of this flaw caused losses thanks to the personal information disclosed.

I can appreciate that the college does in fact have to abide by law, and is unwilling to get into a mudslinging match in the public forum. They have rules for ethical behaviour that may have been violated (I haven't seen them). But beyond those considerations, every one of the fourteen professors needs to answer one simple question:

Why, if these actions are so outrageous of a Computer Science graduate that it demonstrates
"behavior that is unacceptable in a computing professional" has the company whose software flaws he exposed taken it upon themselve to pay for his further education?

Academia is often seen as disconnected from reality; some lines of research beggar belief, and the same could be said of Computer Science. I've met a few graduates who arrive in the IT industry ill-prepared, full of theory of operation and design but unable to command a command-line. No matter what their actual instruction is, a critical point they need to learn is that the Internet is a hostile place. It is also a collaborative place, where FOSS abounds and Creative Commons is richly rewarding. Poking around is the norm, and if this college is telling their students that they are to accept their instruction blindly without considering real-world implications, or use those skills to explore, then they don't deserve to be associated with the term Higher Education.

They may perhaps be able to educate Code Monkeys, but thinking professionals able to design and protect systems that impact their lives? Not really.

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