Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Ethics: University of Minnesota's hostile patches

The University of Minnesota (UMN) got into trouble this week for doing a study where they have submitted deliberately vulnerable patches into open-source projects, in order to test whether hostile actors can do this to hack things. After a UMN researcher submitted a crappy patch to the Linux Kernel, kernel maintainers decided to rip out all recent UMN patches.

Both things can be true:

  • Their study was an important contribution to the field of cybersecurity.
  • Their study was unethical.
It's like Nazi medical research on victims in concentration camps, or U.S. military research on unwitting soldiers. The research can simultaneously be wildly unethical but at the same time produce useful knowledge.

I'd agree that their paper is useful. I would not be able to immediately recognize their patches as adding a vulnerability -- and I'm an expert at such things.

In addition, the sorts of bugs it exploits shows a way forward in the evolution of programming languages. It's not clear that a "safe" language like Rust would be the answer. Linux kernel programming requires tracking resources in ways that Rust would consider inherently "unsafe". Instead, the C language needs to evolve with better safety features and better static analysis. Specifically, we need to be able to annotate the parameters and return statements from functions. For example, if a pointer can't be NULL, then it needs to be documented as a non-nullable pointer. (Imagine if pointers could be signed and unsigned, meaning, can sometimes be NULL or never be NULL).

So I'm glad this paper exists. As a researcher, I'll likely cite it in the future. As a programmer, I'll be more vigilant in the future. In my own open-source projects, I should probably review some previous pull requests that I've accepted, since many of them have been the same crappy quality of simply adding a (probably) unnecessary NULL-pointer check.

The next question is whether this is ethical. Well, the paper claims to have sign-off from their university's IRB -- their Institutional Review Board that reviews the ethics of experiments. Universities created IRBs to deal with the fact that many medical experiments were done on either unwilling or unwitting subjects, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. All medical research must have IRB sign-off these days.

However, I think IRB sign-off for computer security research is stupid. Things like masscanning of the entire Internet are undecidable with traditional ethics. I regularly scan every device on the IPv4 Internet, including your own home router. If you paid attention to the packets your firewall drops, some of them would be from me. Some consider this a gross violation of basic ethics and get very upset that I'm scanning their computer. Others consider this to be the expected consequence of the end-to-end nature of the public Internet, that there's an inherent social contract that you must be prepared to receive any packet from anywhere. Kerckhoff's Principle from the 1800s suggests that core ethic of cybersecurity is exposure to such things rather than trying to cover them up.

The point isn't to argue whether masscanning is ethical. The point is to argue that it's undecided, and that your IRB isn't going to be able to answer the question better than anybody else.

But here's the thing about masscanning: I'm honest and transparent about it. My very first scan of the entire Internet came with a tweet "BTW, this is me scanning the entire Internet".

A lot of ethical questions in other fields comes down to honesty. If you have to lie about it or cover it up, then there's a good chance it's unethical.

For example, the west suffers a lot of cyberattacks from Russia and China. Therefore, as a lone wolf actor capable of hacking them back, is it ethical to do so? The easy answer is that when discovered, would you say "yes, I did that, and I'm proud of it", or would you lie about it? I admit this is a difficult question, because it's posed in terms of whether you'd want to evade the disapproval from other people, when the reality is that you might not want to get novichoked by Putin.

The above research is based on a lie. Lying has consequences.

The natural consequence here is that now that UMN did that study, none of the patches they submit can be trusted. It's not just this one submitted patch. The kernel maintainers are taking scorched earth response, reverting all recent patches from the university and banning future patches from them. It may be a little hysterical, but at the same time, this is a new situation that no existing policy covers.

I partly disagree with the kernel maintainer's conclusion that the patches "obviously were _NOT_ created by a static analysis tool". This is exactly the sort of noise static analyzers have produced in the past. I reviewed the source file for how a static analyzer might come to this conclusion, and found it's exactly the sort of thing it might produce.

But at the same time, it's obviously noise and bad output. If the researcher were developing a static analyzer tool, they should understand that this is crap noise and bad output from the static analyzer. They should not be submitting low-quality patches like this one. The main concern that researchers need to focus on for static analysis isn't increasing detection of vulns, but decreasing noise.

In other words, the debate here is whether the researcher is incompetent or dishonest. Given that UMN has practiced dishonesty in the past, it's legitimate to believe they are doing so again. Indeed, "static analysis" research might also include research in automated ways to find subversive bugs. One might create a static analyzer to search code for ways to insert a NULL pointer check to add a vuln.

Now incompetence is actually a fine thing. That's the point of research, is to learn things. Starting fresh without all the preconceptions of old work is also useful. That researcher has problems today, but a year or two from now they'll be an ultra-competent expert in their field. That's how one achieves competence -- making mistakes, lots of them.

But either way, the Linux kernel maintainer response of "we are not part of your research project" is a valid. These patches are crap, regardless of which research project they are pursuing (static analyzer or malicious patch submissions).


Conclusion

I think the UMN research into bad-faith patches is useful to the community. I reject the idea that their IRB, which is focused on biomedical ethics rather than cybersecurity ethics, would be useful here. Indeed, it's done the reverse: IRB approval has tainted the entire university with the problem rather than limiting the fallout to just the researchers that could've been disavowed.

The natural consequence of being dishonest is that people can't trust you. In cybersecurity, trust is hard to win and easy to lose -- and UMN lost it. The researchers should have understand that "dishonesty" was going to be a problem.

I'm not sure there is a way to ethically be dishonest, so I'm not sure how such useful research can be done without the researchers or sponsors being tainted by it. I just know that "dishonesty" is an easily recognizable issue in cybersecurity that needs to be avoided. If anybody knows how to be ethically dishonest, I'd like to hear it.

Update: This person proposes a way this research could be conducted to ethically be dishonest:

Friday, March 26, 2021

A quick FAQ about NFTs

I thought I'd write up 4 technical questions about NFTs. They may not be the ones you ask, but they are the ones you should be asking. The questions:

  • What does the token look like?
  • How does it contain the artwork? (or, where is the artwork contained?)
  • How are tokens traded? (How do they get paid? How do they get from one account to another?)
  • What does the link from token to artwork mean? Does it give copyrights?
I'm going to use 4 sample tokens that have been sold for outrageous prices as examples.

#1 What does the token look like?

An NFT token has a unique number, analogous to:

  • your social security number (SSN#)
  • your credit card number
  • the VIN# on your car
  • the serial number on a dollar bill
  • etc.

This unique number is composed of two things:

  • the contract number, identifying the contract that manages the token
  • the unique token identifier within that contract
Here are some example tokens, listing the contract number (the long string) and token ID (short number), as well as a link to a story on how much it sold for recently.

With these two numbers, you can go find the token on the blockchain, and read the code to determine what the token contains, how it's traded, its current owner, and so on.


#2 How do NFTs contain artwork? or, where is artwork contained?

Tokens can't*** contain artwork -- art is too big to fit on the blockchain. That Beeple piece is 300-megabytes in size. Therefore, tokens point to artwork that is located somewhere else than the blockchain.

*** (footnote) This isn't actually true. It's just that it's very expensive to put artwork on the blockchain. That Beeple artwork would cost about $5million to put onto the blockchain. Yes, this less than a tenth the purchase price of $69million, but when you account for all the artwork for which people have created NFTs, the total exceeds the prices for all NFTs.

So if artwork isn't on the blockchain, where is it located? and how do the NFTs link to it?

Our four examples of NFT mentioned above show four different answers to this question. Some are smart, others are stupid -- and by "stupid" I mean "tantamount to fraud".

The correct way to link a token with a piece of digital art is through a hash, which can be used with the decentralized darknet.

hash is a unique cryptographic "key" (sic) generated from the file contents. No two files with different contents (or different lengths) will generate the same hash. A hacker can't create a different file that generates the same hash. Therefore, the hash becomes the identity of the file -- if you have a hash and a file, you can independently verify the two match.

The hash (and therefore unique identity) of the Beeple file is the following string:

QmXkxpwAHCtDXbbZHUwqtFucG1RMS6T87vi1CdvadfL7qA

With the hash, it doesn't matter where the file is located right now in cyberspace. It only matters that at some point in the future, when the owner of the NFT wants to sell it, they can produce the file which provably matches the hash.

To repeat: because of the magic of cryptographic hashes, the artwork in question doesn't have to be located anywhere in particular.

However, people do like having a live copy of the file available in a well known location. One way of doing this is with the darknet, which is essentially a decentralized version of the web. In much the same way the blockchain provides decentralized transactions, darknet services provide decentralized file sharing. The most famous of such services is BitTorrent. The most popular for use with NFTs is known as IPFS (InterPlanetary File System). A hash contained within an NFT token often links to the IPFS system.

In the $69million Beeple NFT, this link is:

ipfs://ipfs/QmPAg1mjxcEQPPtqsLoEcauVedaeMH81WXDPvPx3VC5zUz

Sharp eyed readers will notice the hash of the artwork (above) doesn't match the hash in this IPFS link.

That's because the NFT token points to a metadata file that contains the real hash, along with other information about the artwork. The QmPAg.... hash points to metadata that contains the QmXkx... hash.

But a chain of hashes in this manner is still just as secure as a single hash -- indeed, that's what the "blockchain" is -- a hash chain. In the future, when the owner sells this NFT, they'll need to provide both files, the metadata and the artwork, to conclusively transfer ownership.

Thus, in answer to the question of where the artwork is located (in the NFT? on the web?), the answer is often that the NFT token contains a hash pointing to the darknet.

Let's look at another token on our list, the $180k AP artwork. The NFT links to the following URL:

https://ap-nft.everipedia.org/api/presidential-2020/1

Like the above example with Beeple, this too points to a metadata file, with a link to the eventual artwork (here). However, this chain is broken in the middle with that URL -- it isn't decentralized, and there's no guarantee in the future that it'll exist. The company "Everipedia" could go out of business tomorrow, or simply decide to stop sharing the file to the web, or decide to provide a different file at that location. In these cases, the thing the NFT points to disappears.

In other words, 50 years from now, after WW III and we've all moved to the off-world colonies, the owner of Beeple's NFT will still be able to sell it, providing the two additional files. The owner of this AP NFT probably won't -- the link will probably have disappeared from the web -- they won't be able to prove that the NFT they control points to the indicated artwork.

I would call this tantamount to fraud -- almost. The information is all there for the buyer to check, so they know the problems with this NFT. They obviously didn't care -- maybe they plan on being able to offload the NFT onto another buyer before the URL disappears.

Now let's look at the CryptoPunks #7804 NFT. The contract points to the same hash of an image file that contains all 10,000 possible token images. That hash is the following. Click on it to see the file it maps to:

ac39af4793119ee46bbff351d8cb6b5f23da60222126add4268e261199a2921b

The token ID in question is #7804. If you look in that file for the 7804th face, you'll see which one the token matches.

Unfortunately, the original contract doesn't actually explain how we arrive at the 7804th sub-image. Do we go left to right? Top down? or some other method? Currently, there exists a website that does the translation using one algorithm, but in the future, there's no hard proof which token maps to which face inside that massive image.

Now let's look at the CryptoKitty #896775 . In this case, there's no hashes involved, and no image. Instead, each kitty is expressed as a pattern of "genes", with contracts that specify how to two kittens can breed together to create a new kitty's genes. The above token contains the gene sequence:

235340506405654824796728975308592110924822688777991068596785613937685997

There are other contracts on the blockchain that can interact with this. 

The CryptoKitty images we see are generated by an algorithm that reads the gene sequence. Thus, there is no image file, no hash of a file. The algorithm that does this is located off-chain, so again we have the problem that in the future, the owner of the token may not be able to prove ownership of the correct image.

So what we see in these examples is one case where there's a robust hash chain linking the NFT with the corresponding image file, and three examples where the link is problematic -- ranging from slightly broken to almost fraudulent.


#3 How are tokens traded?

There are two ways you can sell your NFTs:

  • off the blockchain
  • on the blockchain

The Beeple artwork was sold through Christie's -- meaning off blockchain. Christies conducted the bidding and collected the payment, took its cut, and gave the rest to the artist. The artist then transferred the NFT. We can see this on the blockchain where Beeple transferred the NFT for $0, but we can't see the flow of money off blockchain.

This is the exception. The rule is that NFTs are supposed to be traded on blockchain.

NFT contracts don't have auction or selling capabilities themselves. Instead, they follow a standard (known as ERC721) that allows them to be managed by other contracts. A person controlling a token selects some other auction/selling contract that matches the terms they want, and gives control to that contract.

Because contracts are code, both sides are know what the terms are, and can be confident they won't be defrauded by the other side.

For example, a contract's terms might be to provide for bids over 5 days, transfer the NFT from the owner to the buyer, and transfer coins from the buyer to the previous owner.

This is really why NFTs are so popular: not ownership of artwork, but on blockchain buying and selling of tokens. It's the ability to conduct such commerce where the rules are dictated by code rather than by humans, where such transfers happen in a decentralized manner rather than through a central authority that can commit fraud.

So the upshot is that if you own an NFT, you can use the Transfer() function to transfer it to some other owner, or you can authorize some other contract to do the selling for you, which will eventually call this Transfer() function when the deal is done. Such a contract will likely also transfer coins in the other direction, paying you for your token.


#4 What does this all mean?

If you break into the Louvre Museum and steal the Mona Lisa, you will control the artwork. But you won't own it. The word "ownership" is defined to mean your legal rights over the object. If the legal authorities catch up with you, they'll stick you in jail and transfer control of the artwork back to the rightful legal owner.

We keep talking about "ownership" of NFTs, but this is fiction. Instead, all that you get when you acquire an NFT is "control" -- control of just the token even, and not of the underlying artwork. Much of what happens in blockchain/cryptocurrencies isn't covered by the law. Therefore, you can't really "own" tokens. But you certainly control them (with the private key in your wallet that matches the public key of your account/address on the blockchain).

This is why NFTs are problematic, people are paying attention to the fiction ("ownership") and not the technical details ("control"). We see that in the AP artwork above which simply links to a URL instead of a hash, missing a crucial step. They weren't paying attention to the details.

There are other missing steps. For example, I can create my own NFTs representing all these artworks and sell them (maybe covered in a future blogpost). It's a fiction that one of these is valid and my copy NFTs are invalid.

On the other hand, this criticism can go too far. Some people claim the entire blockchain/cryptocurrency market is complete fiction. This isn't true -- there's lots of obvious value in transactions that are carried out by code rather than by humans.

For example, an oil company might sell tokens for oil futures, allowing people to trade such futures on the blockchain. Ultimately, though, the value of such tokens comes down to faith in the original issuer that they'll deliver on the promise -- that the controller of the token will eventually get something in the real world. There are lots of companies being successful with this sort of thing, such as the BAT token used in the "Brave" web browser that provides websites with micropayment revenue instead of advertising revenue.

Thus, the difference here is that cryptocurrencies are part fiction, part real -- tied to real world things. But NFTs representing artwork are pretty much completely fiction. They confer no control over the artwork in the real world. Whatever tie a token has to the artwork is purely in your imagination.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Deconstructing that $69million NFT

"NFTs" have hit the mainstream news with the sale of an NFT based digital artwork for $69 million. I thought I'd write up an explainer. Specifically, I deconstruct that huge purchase and show what actually was exchanged, down to the raw code. (The answer: almost nothing).

The reason for this post is that every other description of NFTs describe what they pretend to be. In this blogpost, I drill down on what they actually are.

Note that this example is about "NFT artwork", the thing that's been in the news. There are other uses of NFTs, which work very differently than what's shown here.

tl;dr

I have long bit of text explaining things. Here is the short form that allows you to drill down to the individual pieces.

  • Beeple created a piece of art in a file
  • He created a hash that uniquely, and unhackably, identified that file
  • He created a metadata file that included the hash to the artwork
  • He created a hash to the metadata file
  • He uploaded both files (metadata and artwork) to the IPFS darknet decentralized file sharing service
  • He created, or minted a token governed by the MakersTokenV2 smart contract on the Ethereum blockchain
  • Christies created an auction for this token
  • The auction was concluded with a payment of $69 million worth of Ether cryptocurrency. However, nobody has been able to find this payment on the Ethereum blockchain, the money was probably transferred through some private means.
  • Beeple transferred the token to the winner, who transferred it again to this final Metakovan account
Each of the link above allows you to drill down to exactly what's happening on the blockchain. The rest of this post discusses things in long form.

Why do I care?

Well, you don't. It makes you feel stupid that you haven't heard about it, when everyone is suddenly talking about it as if it's been a thing for a long time. But the reality, they didn't know what it was a month ago, either. Here is the Google Trends graph to prove this point -- interest has only exploded in the last couple months:

The same applies to me. I've been aware of them (since the CryptoKitties craze from a couple years ago) but haven't invested time reading source code until now. Much of this blogpost is written as notes as I discover for myself exactly what was purchased for $69 million, reading the actual transactions.


So what is it?

My definition: "Something new that can be traded on a blockchain that isn't a fungible cryptocurrency".

In this post, I'm going to explain in technical details. Before this, you might want to pause and see what everyone else is saying about it. You can look on Wikipedia to answer that question, or look at the following definition from CNN (the first result when I google it):
Non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, are pieces of digital content linked to the blockchain, the digital database underpinning cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and ethereum. Unlike NFTs, those assets are fungible, meaning they can be replaced or exchanged with another identical one of the same value, much like a dollar bill.
You can also get a list of common NFT systems here. While this list of NFT systems contains a lot of things related to artwork (as described in this blogpost), a lot aren't. For example, CryptoKitties is an online game, not artwork (though it too allows ties to pictures of the kitties).


What is fungible?

Let's define the word fungible first. The word refers to goods you purchase that can be replaced by an identical good, like a pound of sugar, an ounce of gold, a barrel of West Texas Intermediate crude oil. When you buy one, you don't care which one you get.

In contrast, an automobile is a non-fungible good -- if you order a Tesla Model 3, you won't be satisfied with just any car that comes out of the factory, but one that matches the color and trim that you ordered. Art work is a well known non-fungible asset -- there's only one Mona Lisa painting in the world, for example.

Dollar bills and coins are fungible tokens -- they represent the value printed on the currency. You can pay your bar bill with any dollars. 

Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, ZCash, and Ethereum are also "fungible tokens". That's where they get their value, from their fungibility.

NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, is the idea of trading something unique (non-fungible, not the same as anything else) on the blockchain. You can trade them, but each is unique, like a painting, a trading card, a rare coin, and so on.

This is a token  -- it represents a thing. You aren't trading an artwork itself on the blockchain, but a token that represents the artwork. I mention this because most descriptions about NFTs are that you are buying artwork -- you aren't. Instead, you are buying a token that points to the artwork.

The best real world example is a receipt for purchase. Let's say you go to the Louvre and buy the Mona Lisa painting, and they give you a receipt attesting to the authenticity of the transaction. The receipt is not the artwork itself, but something that represents the artwork. It's proof you legitimately purchased it -- that you didn't steal it. If you ever resell the painting, you'll probably need something like this proving the provenance of the piece.


Show me an example!

So let's look an at an example NFT, the technical details, to see how it works. We might as well use this massive $69 million purchase as our example. Some news reports describing the purchase are here: [1] [2] [3].

None of these stories say what actually happened. They say the "artwork was purchased", but what does that actually mean? We are going to deconstruct that here. (The answer is: the artwork wasn't actually purchased).


What was the artwork?

It's a piece created by an artist named "Beeple" (Mike Winkelmann), called "Everydays: The First 5000 Days". It's a 500-megapixel image, which is about 300-megabytes in size. A thumbnail of this work is shown below.



So the obvious question is where is this artwork? Is it somewhere on the blockchain? Well, no, the file is 300-megabytes in size, much too large to put on the blockchain. Instead, the file exists somewhere out in cyberspace (described below).

What exists on the blockchain is a unique fingerprint linking to the file, known as a hash.


What is a hash?

It's at this point we need to discuss cryptography: it's not just about encryption, but also random numbers, public keys, and hashing.

A "hash" passes all the bytes of a file through an algorithm to generate a short signature or fingerprint unique to that file. No two files with different contents can have the same hash. The most popular algorithm is SHA-256, which produces a 256-bit hash.

We call it a cryptographic hash to differentiate it from weaker algorithms. With a strong algorithm, it's essentially impossible for a hacker to create a different file that has the same hash -- even if the hacker tried really hard.

Thus, the hash is the identity of the file. The identity of the artwork in question is not the title of the piece mentioned above, other pieces of art can also be given that title. Instead, the identity of the artwork is its hash. Other pieces of artwork cannot have the same hash.

For this artwork, that 300-megabyte file is hashed, producing a 256-bit value. Written in hex, this value is:

6314b55cc6ff34f67a18e1ccc977234b803f7a5497b94f1f994ac9d1b896a017

Hexadecimal results in long strings. There are shorter ways of representing hashes. One is a format called MultiHash. It's value is shown below. This refers to the same 256-bits, and thus the two forms equivalent, they are simply displayed in different ways.

QmXkxpwAHCtDXbbZHUwqtFucG1RMS6T87vi1CdvadfL7qA

This is the identity of the artwork. If you want to download the entire 300-megabyte file, simply copy and paste that into google, and it'll lead you to someplace in cyberspace where you can download it. Once you download it, you can verify the hash, such as with the command-line tool OpenSSL:

$ openssl dgst -sha256 everdays5000.jfif

SHA256(everdays5000.jfif)= 6314b55cc6ff34f67a18e1ccc977234b803f7a5497b94f1f994ac9d1b896a017

The above is exactly what I've done -- I downloaded the file from cyberspace, named it "everydays5000.jfif", and then calculated the hash to see if it matches. As you can tell by looking at my result with the above hash, they do match, so I know I have an exact copy of the artwork.


Where to download the image from cyberspace?

Above, I downloaded the file in order to demonstrate calculating the hash. It doesn't live on the blockchain, so where does it live?

There's two answers. The first answer is potentially anywhere in cyberspace. Thousands of people have downloaded the file onto the personal computers, so obviously it exists on their machines -- you just can't get at it. If you ever do come across it somewhere, you can always verify it's the exact copy by looking at the hash.

The second answer is somewhere on the darknet. The term "darknet" refers to various systems on the Internet other than the web. Remember, the "web" is not the "Internet", but simply one of many services on the Internet.

The most popular darknet services are decentralized file sharing systems like BitTorrent and IPFS. In much the same way that blockchains are decentralized transaction services, these two system are decentralized file services. When something is too big to live on the blockchain, it often lives on the darknet, usually via IPFS.

The way these services identify files is through their hashes. If you know their hash, you can stick it into one of these services and find it. Thus, if you want to find this file on IPFS, download some IPFS aware software, and plug in the hash.

There's an alternative privacy-focused browser called "Brave" that includes darknet features (TOR, BitTorrent, and IPFS). To download this file using Brave, simply use the following URL:

ipfs://QmXkxpwAHCtDXbbZHUwqtFucG1RMS6T87vi1CdvadfL7qA

But an easier way is to use one of the many IPFS gateways. These are web servers that will copy a file off the darknet and make it available to you. Here is a URL using one of those gateways:

https://ipfsgateway.makersplace.com/ipfs/QmXkxpwAHCtDXbbZHUwqtFucG1RMS6T87vi1CdvadfL7qA

If you click on this link within your browser, you'll download the 300-megabyte file from the IPFS darknet. It'll take a while, the service is slow. Once you get it, you can verify the hashes match. But since the URL is based on the hash, of course they should match, unless there was some error in transmission.


So this hash is on the blockchain?

Well, it could've been, but it wasn't. Instead, the hash that's on the blockchain points to a file containing metadata -- and it's the metadata that points to the hash.

In other words, it's a chain of hashes. The hash on the blockchain (as we'll see below) is this one here (I've made it a link so you can click on it to see the raw data):

QmPAg1mjxcEQPPtqsLoEcauVedaeMH81WXDPvPx3VC5zUz

When you click on this, you see a bunch of JSON data. Below, I've stripped away the uninteresting stuff to show the meaningful bits;

title:"EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS
description:"I made a picture from start to finish every single day from May 1st, 2007 - January 7th, 2021.  This is every motherfucking one of those pictures.
digital_media_signature:"6314b55cc6ff34f67a18e1ccc977234b803f7a5497b94f1f994ac9d1b896a017
raw_media_file:"https://ipfsgateway.makersplace.com/ipfs/QmXkxpwAHCtDXbbZHUwqtFucG1RMS6T87vi1CdvadfL7qA"

Now remember that due to the magic of cryptographic hashes, this chain can't be broken. One hash leads to the next, such that changing any single bit breaks the chain. Indeed, that's what a "blockchain" is -- a hash chain. Changing any bit of information anywhere on the Bitcoin blockchain is immediately detectable, because it throws off the hash calculations.

So we have a chain: 

hash -> metadata -> hash -> artwork

So if you own the root, you own the entire chain.

Note that this chain seems unbreakable here, in this $69 million NFT token. However, in a lot of other tokens, it's not. I mean, the hash chain itself doesn't promise much (it simply points at the artwork, giving no control over it), but other NFTs promise even less.


So what, exactly, is the NFT that was bought and sold?

Here's what Christie's sold. Here's how Christies describes it:

Beeple (b. 1981)
EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS
token ID: 40913
wallet address: 0xc6b0562605D35eE710138402B878ffe6F2E23807
smart contract address: 0x2a46f2ffd99e19a89476e2f62270e0a35bbf0756
non-fungible token (jpg)
21,069 x 21,069 pixels (319,168,313 bytes)
Minted on 16 February 2021. This work is unique.

The seller is the artist Beeple. The artist created the token (shown below) and assigned their wallet address as the owner. This is their wallet address:

0xc6b0562605D35eE710138402B878ffe6F2E23807

When Beeple created the token, he did so using a smart contract that governs the rules for the token. Such smart contracts is what makes Ethereum different from Bitcoin, allowing things to be created and managed on the blockchain other than simple currency transfers. Contracts have addresses on the blockchain, too, but no person controls them -- they are rules for decentralized transfer of things, with nobody (other than the code) in control.

There are many smart contracts that can manage NFTs. The one Beeple chose is known as MakersTokenV2. This contract has the following address:

0x2a46f2ffd99e19a89476e2f62270e0a35bbf0756

Note that if you browse this link, you'll eventually get to the code so that you can read the smart contract and see how it works. It's a derivation of something known as ERC721 that defines the properties of a certain class of non-fungible tokens.

Finally, we get to the actual token being sold here. It is:

#40913

In other words, it's the 40913rd token created and managed by the MakersTokenV2 contract. The full description of what Christies is selling is this token number governed by the named contract on the Ethereum blockchain:

Ethereum -> 0x2a46f2ffd99e19a89476e2f62270e0a35bbf0756 -> 40913

We have to search the blockchain in order to find the transaction that created this token. The transaction is identified by the hash:

0x84760768c527794ede901f97973385bfc1bf2e297f7ed16f523f75412ae772b3

The smart contract is code, so in the above transaction, Beeple calls functions within the contract to create a new token, assign digital media to it (the hash), and assign himself owner of the newly created token.

After doing this, the token #40913 now contains the following information:

creator : 0xc6b0562605d35ee710138402b878ffe6f2e23807
metadataPath : QmPAg1mjxcEQPPtqsLoEcauVedaeMH81WXDPvPx3VC5zUz
tokenURI : ipfs://ipfs/QmPAg1mjxcEQPPtqsLoEcauVedaeMH81WXDPvPx3VC5zUz

This is the thing that Christie's auction house sold. As you can see in their description above, it all points to this token on the blockcahin.

Now after the auction, the next step is to transfer the token to the new owner. Again, the contract is code, so this is calling the "Transfer()" function in that code. Beeple is the only person who can do this transfer, because only he knows the private key that controls his wallet. This transfer is done in the transaction below:

0xa342e9de61c34900883218fe52bc9931daa1a10b6f48c506f2253c279b15e5bf 

token : 40913
from : 0xc6b0562605d35ee710138402b878ffe6f2e23807
to : 0x58bf1fbeac9596fc20d87d346423d7d108c5361a

That's not the current owner. Instead, it was soon transferred again in the following transaction:

0x01d0967faaaf95f3e19164803a1cf1a2f96644ebfababb2b810d41a72f502d49 

token : 40913
from : 0x58bf1fbeac9596fc20d87d346423d7d108c5361a
to : 0x8bb37fb0f0462bb3fc8995cf17721f8e4a399629

That final address is known to belong to a person named "Metakovan", who the press has identified as the buyer of the piece. I don't know what that intermediary address between Beeple and Metakovan was, but it's common in the cryptocurrency world to have many accounts that people transfer things between, so I bet it also belongs to Metakovan.


How are things transferred?

Like everything on the blockchain, control is transfered via public/private keys. Your wallet address is a hash of your public key, which everyone knows. Anybody can transfer something to your public address without you being involved.

But every public key has a matching private key. Both are generated together, because they are mathematically related. Only somebody who knows the private key that matches the wallet address can transfer something out of the wallet to another person.

Thus Beeple's account as the following public address. But we don't know his private key, which he has stored on a computer file somewhere.

0xc6b0562605D35eE710138402B878ffe6F2E23807


To summarize what was bought and sold

So that's it. To summarize:

  • Beeple created a piece of art in a file
  • He created a hash that uniquely, and unhackably, identified that file
  • He created a metadata file that included the hash to the artwork
  • He created a hash to the metadata file
  • He uploaded both files (metadata and artwork) to the IPFS darknet decentralized file sharing service
  • He created, or minted a token governed by the MakersTokenV2 smart contract on the Ethereum blockchain
  • Christies created an auction for this token
  • The auction was concluded with a payment of $69 million worth of Ether cryptocurrency. However, nobody has been able to find this payment on the Ethereum blockchain, the money was probably transferred through some private means.
  • Beeple transferred the token to the winner, who transferred it again to this final Metakovan account
And that's it.

Okay, I understand. But I have a question. WHAT IS AN NFT????

So if you've been paying attention, and understood everything I've said, then you should still be completely confused. What exactly was purchased that was worth $69 million?

If we are asking what Metakovan purchased for his $69 million, it comes down to this: the ability to transfer MakersTokenV2 #40913 to somebody else.

That's it. That's everything he purchased. He didn't purchase the artwork, he didn't purchase the copyrights, he didn't purchase anything more than the ability to transfer that token. Even saying he owns the token is a misnomer, since the token lives on the blockchain. Instead, since only Metakovan knows the private key that controls his wallet, all that he possesses is the ability to transfer the token to the control of another private key.

It's not even as unique as people claim. Beeple can mint another token for the same artwork. Anybody else can mint a token for Beeple's artwork. Insignificant changes can be made to that artwork, and tokens can be minted for that, too. There's nothing hard and fast controlled by the code -- the relationship is in people's minds.

If you are coming here asking why somebody thinks this is worth $69 million, I have no answer for you.


The conclusion

I think there are two things that are clear here:
  • This token is not going to be meaningful to most of us: who cares if the token points to a hash that eventually points to a file freely available on the Internet?
  • This token is meaningful to those in the "crypto" (meaning "cryptocurrency") community, but it's in their minds, rather than something hard and fast controlled by code or cryptography.
In other words, the work didn't sell for $69 million of real money.

For one thing, it's not the work that was traded, or rights or control over that work. It's simply a token that pointed to the work.

For another thing, it was sold for 42329.453 ETH, not $dollars. Early adopters with lots of cryptocurrency are likely to believe the idea that the token is meaningful, whereas outsiders with $dollars don't.

An NFT is ultimately like those plaques you see next to paintings in a museum telling people about the donor or philanthropist involved -- only this plaque is somewhere where pretty much nobody will see it.




Sunday, February 28, 2021

We are living in 1984 (ETERNALBLUE)

In the book 1984, the protagonist questions his sanity, because his memory differs from what appears to be everybody else's memory.

The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. ‘Reality control’, they called it: in Newspeak, ‘doublethink’.

I know that EternalBlue didn't cause the Baltimore ransomware attack. When the attack happened, the entire cybersecurity community agreed that EternalBlue wasn't responsible.

But this New York Times article said otherwise, blaming the Baltimore attack on EternalBlue. And there are hundreds of other news articles [eg] that agree, citing the New York Times. There are no news articles that dispute this.

In a recent book, the author of that article admits it's not true, that EternalBlue didn't cause the ransomware to spread. But they defend themselves as it being essentially true, that EternalBlue is responsible for a lot of bad things, even if technically, not in this case. Such errors are justified, on the grounds they are generalizations and simplifications needed for the mass audience.

So we are left with the situation Orwell describes: all records tell the same tale -- when the lie passes into history, it becomes the truth.

Orwell continues:

He wondered, as he had many times wondered before, whether he himself was a lunatic. Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one. At one time it had been a sign of madness to believe that the earth goes round the sun; today, to believe that the past is inalterable. He might be ALONE in holding that belief, and if alone, then a lunatic. But the thought of being a lunatic did not greatly trouble him: the horror was that he might also be wrong.

I'm definitely a lunatic, alone in my beliefs. I sure hope I'm not wrong.




Update: Other lunatics document their struggles with Minitrue:

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Review: Perlroth's book on the cyberarms market

New York Times reporter Nicole Perlroth has written a book on zero-days and nation-state hacking entitled “This Is How They Tell Me The World Ends”. Here is my review.


I’m not sure what the book intends to be. The blurbs from the publisher implies a work of investigative journalism, in which case it’s full of unforgivable factual errors. However, it reads more like a memoir, in which case errors are to be expected/forgivable, with content often from memory rather than rigorously fact checked notes.


But even with this more lenient interpretation, there are important flaws that should be pointed out. For example, the book claims the Saudi’s hacked Bezos with a zero-day. I claim that’s bunk. The book claims zero-days are “God mode” compared to other hacking techniques, I claim they are no better than the alternatives, usually worse, and rarely used.


But I can’t really list all the things I disagree with. It’s no use. She’s a New York Times reporter, impervious to disagreement.


If this were written by a tech journalist, then criticism would be the expected norm. Tech is full of factual truths, such as whether 2+2=5, where it’s possible for a thing to be conclusively known. All journalists make errors -- tech journalists are constantly making small revisions correcting their errors after publication.


The best example of this is Ars Technica. They pride themselves on their reader forums, where readers comment, opine, criticize, and correct stories. Sometimes readers add more interesting information to the story, providing free content to other readers. Sometimes they fix errors.


It’s often unpleasant for the journalists who steel themselves after hitting “Submit…”. They have a lot of practice defending or correcting every assertion they make, from both legitimate and illegitimate criticism. This makes them astoundingly good journalists -- mistakes editors miss readers don’t. They get trained fast to deal with criticism.


The mainstream press doesn’t have this tradition. To be fair, it couldn’t. Tech forums have techies with knowledge and experience, while the mainstream press has ignorant readers with opinions. Regardless of the story’s original content it’ll devolve into people arguing about whether Epstein was murdered (for example).


Nicole Perlroth is a mainstream reporter on a techy beat. So you see a conflict here between the expectation both sides have for each other. Techies expect a tech journalist who’ll respond to factual errors, she doesn’t expect all this criticism. She doesn’t see techie critics for what they are -- subject matter experts that would be useful sources to make her stories better. She sees them as enemies that must be ignored. This makes her stories sloppy by technical standards. I hate that this sounds like a personal attack when it’s really more a NYTimes problem -- most of their cyber stories struggle with technical details, regardless of author.


This problem is made worse by the fact that the New York Times doesn’t have “news stories” so much as “narratives”. They don’t have neutral stories reporting what happened, but narratives explaining a larger point.


A good example is this story that blames the Baltimore ransomware attack on the NSA’s EternalBlue. The narrative is that EternalBlue is to blame for damage all over the place, and it uses the Baltimore ransomware as an example. However, EternalBlue wasn’t responsible for that particular ransomware -- as techies point out.


Perlroth doesn’t fix the story. In her book, she instead criticizes techies for focusing on “the technical detail that in this particular case, the ransomware attack had not spread with EternalBlue”, and that techies don’t acknowledge “the wreckage from EternalBlue in towns and cities across the country”.


It’s a bizarre response from a journalist, refusing to fix a falsehood in a story because the rest of the narrative is true.


Some of the book is correct, telling you some real details about the zero-day market. I can't say it won't be useful to some readers, though the useful bits are buried in a lot of non-useful stuff. But most of the book is wrong about the zero-day market, a slave to the narrative that zero-days are going to end the world. I mean, I should say, I disagree with the narrative and her political policy ideas -- I guess it's up to you to decide for yourself if it's "wrong". Apart from inaccuracies, a lot is missing -- for example, you really can't understand what a "zero-day" is without also understanding the 40 year history of vuln-disclosure.


I could go on a long spree of corrections, and others have their own long list of inaccuracies, but there’s really no point. She's already defended her book as being more of a memoir than a work of journalistic integrity, so her subjective point of view is what it's about, not facts. Her fundamental narrative of the Big Bad Cyberarms Market is a political one, so any discussion of accuracy will be in service of political sides rather than the side of truth.


Moreover, she’ll just attack me for my “bruised male ego”, as she has already done to other expert critics.


Thursday, February 25, 2021

No, 1,000 engineers were not needed for SolarWinds

Microsoft estimates it would take 1,000 to carry out the famous SolarWinds hacker attacks. This means in reality that it was probably fewer than 100 skilled engineers. I base this claim on the following Tweet:


Yes, it would take Microsoft 1,000 engineers to replicate the attacks. But it takes a large company like Microsoft 10-times the effort to replicate anything. This is partly because Microsoft is a big, stodgy corporation. But this is mostly because this is a fundamental property of software engineering, where replicating something takes 10-times the effort of creating the original thing.

It's like painting. The effort to produce a work is often less than the effort to reproduce it. I can throw some random paint strokes on canvas with almost no effort. It would take you an immense amount of work to replicate those same strokes -- even to figure out the exact color of paint that I randomly mixed together.

Software Engineering

The process of software engineering is about creating software that meets a certain set of requirements, or a specification. It is an extremely costly process verify the specification is correct. It's like if you build a bridge but forget a piece and the entire bridge collapses.

But code slinging by hackers and open-source programmers works differently. They aren't building toward a spec. They are building whatever they can and whatever they want. It takes a tenth, or even a hundredth of the effort of software engineering. Yes, it usually builds things that few people (other than the original programmer) want to use. But sometimes it produces gems that lots of people use.

Take my most popular code slinging effort, masscan. I spent about 6-months of total effort writing it at this point. But if you run code analysis tools on it, they'll tell you that it would take several millions of dollars to replicate the amount of code I've written. And that's just measuring the bulk code, not the numerous clever capabilities and innovations in the code.

According to these metrics, I'm either a 100x engineer (a hundred times better than the average engineer) or my claim is true that "code slinging" is a fraction of the effort of "software engineering".

The same is true of everything the SolarWinds hackers produced. They didn't have to software engineer code according to Microsoft's processes. They only had to sling code to satisfy their own needs. They don't have to train/hire engineers with the skills necessary to meet a specification, they can write the specification according to what their own engineers can produce. They can do whatever they want with the code because they don't have to satisfy somebody else's needs.

Hacking

Something is similarly true with hacking. Hacking a specific target, a specific way, is very hard. Hacking any target, any way, is easy.

Like most well-known hackers, I regularly get those emails asking me to hack somebody's Facebook account. This is very hard. I can try a lot of things, and in the end, chances are I cannot succeed. On the other hand, if you ask me to hack anybody's Facebook account, I can do that in seconds. I can download one of the many hacker dumps of email addresses, then try to log into Facebook with every email address using the password "Password1234". Eventually I'll fine somebody who has that password -- I just don't know who.

Hacking is overwhelmingly opportunistic. Hackers go into it not being sure who they'll hack, or how they'll hack. They just try a bunch of things against a bunch of targets and see what works. No two hacks are the same. You can't look at one hack and reproduce it exactly against another target.

Well, you reproduce things a bit. Some limited techniques have become "operationalized". A good example is "phishing", sending emails tricking people into running software or divulging a password. But that's usually only the start of a complete attack, getting the initial foothold into a target, rather than the full hack itself.

In other words, hacking is based a lot on luck. You can create luck for yourself by trying lots of things. But it's hard reproducing luck.

This principle of hacking is why Stuxnet is such an incredible achievement. It wasn't opportunistic hacking. It had a very narrow target that could only be hacked in a very narrow way, jumping across an "airgap" to infect the controllers into order to subtly destabilize the uranium centrifuges. With my lifetime experience with hacking, I'm amazed at Stuxnet.

But SolarWinds was no Stuxnet. Instead, it shows a steady effort over a number of years, capitalizing on the lucky result of one step to then move ahead to the next step. Replicating that chain of luck would be nearly impossible.

Business

Now let's talk about big companies vs. startups. Every month, big companies like Apple, Microsoft, Cisco, etc. are acquiring yet another small startup that has done something that a big company cannot do. These companies often have small (but growing) market share, so it's rarely for the market share alone that big companies acquire small ones.

Instead, it's for the thing that the startup produced. The reason big companies acquire outsiders is again because of the difficulty that insiders would have in reproducing the work. The engineering managers are asked how much it would cost insiders to reproduce the work of the outsiders, the potential acquisition candidate. The answer is almost always "at least 10-times more than what the small company invested in building the thing".

This is reflected by the purchase price, which is often 10-times what the original investors put into the company to build the thing. In other words, Microsoft regularly buys a company for 10-times than all the money the original investors put into the company -- meaning much more than 10-times the effort it would take for their own engineers to replicate the product in question.

Thus, the question people should ask Brad Smith of Microsoft is not simply how many skilled Microsoft engineers it would take to reproduce SolarWinds, but also how many skilled Microsoft engineers it would take to reproduce the engineer effort of their last 10 acquisitions.

Conclusion

I've looked at the problem three different ways, from the point of view of software engineering, hacking, or business. If it takes 1,000 Microsoft engineers to reproduce the SolarWinds hacks, then that means there's fewer than 100 skilled engineers involved in the actual hacks.

SolarWinds is probably the most consequential hack of the last decade. There are many eager to exaggerate things to serve their own agenda. Those types have been pushing this "1,000 engineer" claim. I'm an expert in all three these areas, software engineering, hacking, and business. I've written millions of lines of code, I've well known for my hacking, and I've sold startups. I can assure you: Microsoft's estimate means that likely fewer than 100 skilled engineers were involved.


Wednesday, December 09, 2020

The deal with DMCA 1201 reform

There are two fights in Congress now against the DMCA, the "Digital Millennium Copyright Act". One is over Section 512 covering "takedowns" on the web. The other is over Section 1201 covering "reverse engineering", which weakens cybersecurity.

Even before digital computers, since the 1880s, an important principle of cybersecurity has been openness and transparency ("Kerckhoff's Principle"). Only through making details public can security flaws be found, discussed, and fixed. This includes reverse-engineering to search for flaws.

Cybersecurity experts have long struggled against the ignorant who hold the naive belief we should instead coverup information, so that evildoers cannot find and exploit flaws. Surely, they believe, given just anybody access to critical details of our security weakens it. The ignorant have little faith in technology, that it can be made secure. They have more faith in government's ability to control information.

Technologists believe this information coverup hinders well-meaning people and protects the incompetent from embarrassment. When you hide information about how something works, you prevent people on your own side from discovering and fixing flaws. It also means that you can't hold those accountable for their security, since it's impossible to notice security flaws until after they've been exploited. At the same time, the information coverup does not do much to stop evildoers. Technology can work, it can be perfected, but only if we can search for flaws.

It seems counterintuitive the revealing your encryption algorithms to your enemy is the best way to secure them, but history has proven time and again that this is indeed true. Encryption algorithms your enemy cannot see are insecure. The same is true of the rest of cybersecurity.

Today, I'm composing and posting this blogpost securely from a public WiFi hotspot because the technology is secure. It's secure because of two decades of security researchers finding flaws in WiFi, publishing them, and getting them fixed.

Yet in the year 1998, ignorance prevailed with the "Digital Millennium Copyright Act". Section 1201 makes reverse-engineering illegal. It attempts to secure copyright not through strong technological means, but by the heavy hand of government punishment.

The law was not completely ignorant. It includes an exception allow what it calls "security testing" -- in theory. But that exception does not work in practice, imposing too many conditions on such research to be workable.

The U.S. Copyright Office has authority under the law to add its own exemptions every 3 years. It has repeatedly added exceptions for security research, but the process is unsatisfactory. It's a protracted political battle every 3 years to get the exception back on the list, and each time it can change slightly. These exemptions are still less than what we want. This causes a chilling effect on permissible research. It would be better if such exceptions were put directly into the law.

You can understand the nature of the debate by looking at those on each side.

Those lobbying for the exceptions are those trying to make technology more secure, such as Rapid7, Bugcrowd, Duo Security, Luta Security, and Hackerone. These organizations have no interest in violating copyright -- their only concern is cybersecurity, finding and fixing flaws.

The opposing side includes the copyright industry, as you'd expect, such as the "DVD" association who doesn't want hackers breaking the DRM on DVDs.

However, much of the opposing side has nothing do with copyright as such.

This notably includes the three major voting machine suppliers in the United States: Dominion Voting, ES&S, and Hart InterCivic. Security professionals have been pointing out security flaws in their equipment for the past several years. These vendors are explicitly trying to coverup their security flaws by using the law to silence critics.

This goes back to the struggle mentioned at the top of this post. The ignorant and naive believe that we need to coverup information, so that hackers can't discover flaws. This is expressed in their filing opposing the latest 3-year exemption:

The proponents are wrong and misguided in their argument that the Register’s allowing independent hackers unfettered access to election software is a necessary – or even appropriate – way to address the national security issues raised by election system security. The federal government already has ways of ensuring election system security through programs conducted by the EAC and DHS. These programs, in combination with testing done in partnership between system providers, independent voting system test labs and election officials, provide a high degree of confidence that election systems are secure and can be used to run fair and accurate elections. Giving anonymous hackers a license to attack critical infrastructure would not serve the public interest. 

Not only does this blatantly violate Kerckhoff's Principle stated above, it was proven a fallacy in the last two DEF CON cybersecurity conferences. These conferences bought voting machines off eBay and presented them at the conference for anybody to hack. Widespread and typical vulnerabilities were found. These systems were certified as secure by state and federal governments, yet teenagers were able to trivially bypass the security of these systems.

The danger these companies are afraid of is not a nation state actor being able to play with these systems, but of teenagers playing with their systems at DEF CON embarrassing them by pointing out their laughable security. This proves Kerckhoff's Principle.

That's why the leading technology firms take the opposite approach to security than election systems vendors. This includes Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and so on. They've gotten over their embarrassment. They are every much as critical to modern infrastructure as election systems or the power grid. They publish their flaws roughly every month, along with a patch that fixes them. That's why you end up having to patch your software every month. Far from trying to coverup flaws and punish researchers, they publicly praise researchers, and in many cases, offer "bug bounties" to encourage them to find more bugs.

It's important to understand that the "security research" we are talking about is always "ad hoc" rather than formal.

These companies already do "formal" research and development. They invest billions of dollars in securing their technology. But no matter how much formal research they do, informal poking around by users, hobbyists, and hackers still finds unexpected things.

One reason is simply a corollary to the Infinite Monkey Theorem that states that an infinite number of monkeys banging on an infinite number of typewriters will eventually reproduce the exact works of William Shakespeare. A large number of monkeys banging on your product will eventually find security flaws.

A common example is a parent who brings their kid to work, who then plays around with a product doing things that no reasonable person would every conceive of, and accidentally breaks into the computer. Formal research and development focuses on the known threats, but has trouble of imagining unknown threats.

Another reason informal research is successful is how the modern technology stack works. Whether it's a mobile phone, a WiFi enabled teddy bear for the kids, a connected pacemaker jolting the grandparent's heart, or an industrial control computer controlling manufacturing equipment, all modern products share a common base of code.

Somebody can be an expert in an individual piece of code used in all these products without understanding anything about these products.

I experience this effect myself. I regularly scan the entire Internet looking for a particular flaw. All I see is the flaw itself, exposed to the Internet, but not anything else about the system I've probed. Maybe it's a robot. Maybe it's a car. Maybe it's somebody's television. Maybe it's any one of the billions of IoT ("Internet of Things") devices attached to the Internet. I'm clueless about the products -- but an expert about the flaw.

A company, even as big as Apple or Microsoft, cannot hire enough people to be experts in every piece of technology they use. Instead, they can offer bounties encouraging those who are experts in obscure bits of technology to come forward and examine their products.

This ad hoc nature is important when looking at the solution to the problem. Many think this can be formalized, such as with the requirement of contacting a company asking for permission to look at their product before doing any reverse-engineering.

This doesn't work. A security researcher will buy a bunch of used products off eBay to test out a theory. They don't know enough about the products or the original vendor to know who they should contact for permission. This would take more effort to resolve than the research itself.

It's solely informal and ad hoc "research" that needs protection. It's the same as with everything else that preaches openness and transparency. Imagine if we had freedom of the press, but only for journalists who first were licensed by the government. Imagine if it were freedom of religion, but only for churches officially designated by the government.

Those companies selling voting systems they promise as being "secure" will never give permission. It's only through ad hoc and informal security research, hostile to the interests of those companies, that the public interest will be advanced.

The current exemptions have a number of "gotchas" that seem reasonable, but which create an unacceptable chilling effect.

For example, they allow informal security research "as long as no other laws are violated". That sounds reasonable, but with so many laws and regulations, it's usually possible to argue they violated some obscure and meaningless law in their research. It means a security researcher is now threatened by years in jail for violating a regulation that would've resulted in a $10 fine during the course of their research.

Exceptions to the DMCA need to be clear and unambiguous that finding security bugs is not a crime. If the researcher commits some other crime during research, then prosecute them for that crime, not for violating the DMCA.

The strongest opposition to a "security research exemption" in the DMCA is going to come from the copyright industry itself -- those companies who depend upon copyright for their existence, such as movies, television, music, books, and so on.

The United States position in the world is driven by intellectual property. Hollywood is not simply the center of American film industry, but the world's film industry. Congress has an enormous incentive to protect these industries. Industry organizations like the RIAA and MPAA have enormous influence on Congress.

Many of us in tech believe copyright is already too strong. They've made a mockery of the Constitution's statement of copyrights being for a "limited time", which now means works copyrighted decades before you were born will still be under copyright decades after you die. Section 512 takedown notices are widely abused to silence speech.

Yet the copyright-protected industries perceive themselves as too weak. Once a copyrighted work is post to the Internet for anybody to download, it because virtually impossible to remove (like removing pee from a pool). Takedown notices only remove content from the major websites, like YouTube. They do nothing to remove content from the "dark web".

Thus, they jealously defend against any attempt that would weaken their position. This includes "security research exemptions", which threatens "DRM" technologies that prevent copying.

One fear is of security researchers themselves, that in the process of doing legitimate research that they'll find and disclose other secrets, such as the encryption keys that protect DVDs from being copied, that are built into every DVD player on the market. There is some truth to that, as security researchers have indeed publish some information that the industries didn't want published, such as the DVD encryption algorithm.

The bigger fear is that evildoers trying to break DRM will be free to do so, claiming their activities are just "security research". They would be free to openly collaborate with each other, because it's simply research, while privately pirating content.

But these fears are overblown. Commercial piracy is already forbidden by other laws, and underground piracy happens regardless of the law.

This law has little impact on whether reverse-engineering happens so much as impact whether the fruits of research are published. And that's the key point: we call it "security research", but all that's meaningful is "published security research".

In other words, we are talking about a minor cost to copyright compared with a huge cost to cybersecurity. The cybersecurity of voting machines is a prime example: voting security is bad, and it's not going to improve until we can publicly challenge it. But we can't easily challenge voting security without being prosecuted under the DMCA.

Conclusion

The only credible encryption algorithms are public ones. The only cybersecurity we trust is cybersecurity that we can probe and test, where most details are publicly available. That such transparency is necessary to security has been recognized since the 1880s with Kerckhoff's Principle. Yet, the naive still believe in coverups. As the election industry claimed in their brief: "Giving anonymous hackers a license to attack critical infrastructure would not serve the public interest". Giving anonymous hackers ad hoc, informal access to probe critical infrastructure like voting machines not only serves the public interest, but is necessary to the public interest. As has already been proven, voting machines have cybersecurity weaknesses that they are covering up, which can only be revealed by anonymous hackers.

This research needs to be ad hoc and informal. Attempts at reforming the DMCA, or the Copyright Office's attempt at exemptions, get modified into adding exemptions for formal research. This ends up having the same chilling effect on research while claiming to allow research.

Copyright, like other forms of intellectual property, is important, and it's proper for government to protect it. Even radical anarchists in our industry want government to protect "copyleft", the use of copyright to keep open-source code open.

But it's not so important that it should allow abuse to silence security research. Transparency and ad hoc testing is critical to research, and is more and more often being silenced using copyright law.