Banking Equipment Vendor Tries To Censor Security Research With DMCA Notice -- Then Backs Down When Called Out For It

from the abusing-the-system dept

Abuse of the DMCA takedown process to remove material that is awkward or embarrassing for a company is a common enough topic on Techdirt. But here's one with a slight twist. It concerns hardware security modules (HSMs), which manage the cryptographic keys and PINs used to authenticate bank card transactions. These were generally regarded as pretty secure -- until researchers started analyzing them, as Ross Anderson, head of the Security Research Laboratory at Cambridge University, explains:

[HSM's] application programming interfaces (APIs) had become unmanageably complex, and in the early 2000s Mike Bond, Jolyon Clulow and I found that by sending sequences of commands to the machine that its designers hadn't anticipated, it was often possible to break the device spectacularly. This became a thriving field of security research.
Of course, "thriving" here means "we found lots of security holes", which is why those manufacturing HSMs would rather people didn't do much research in this area. Recently, that desire led to the banking equipment manufacturer Thales sending a DMCA takedown notice to John Young, who runs the well-known Cryptome site, demanding that he remove a manual for one of their HSM products. What makes this demand particularly ridiculous is the fact that the manual had been on Cryptome since 2003 without any previous problems and, according to Young, is also widely available on the Internet, including from Thales itself.

But a blog post from Anderson detailing this clumsy attempt to remove something using the blunt instrument of a DMCA takedown notice suddenly brought the company to its senses. A few days after his post appeared, the same person who had sent Young the less-than-friendly takedown notice followed it up with this rather more chummy missive:

Thales is in no way trying to censor information that would benefit banking security research.

The information concerned, as has been noted, has been available since 2003 and is in fact obsolete. It also does not reflect the current Thales payment hardware security module.
So why on earth bother trying to take it down?
It is not unusual for Thales to suggest that out-of-date information is removed from web sites so that it doesn't cause confusion or mislead our customers. This would normally be handled with a polite request to the web site owner; on this occasion, unfortunately, we were over-zealous in initiating a takedown notice.
Well, there's rather a lot of "out-of-date" information on the Internet -- most of it, in fact -- and generally people don't resort to DMCA takedowns to try to remove it; "over-zealous" doesn't even begin to describe the disproportionate nature of the reaction here.
Thales fully appreciates the benefits of openly sharing information relating to our security products and fully supports legitimate academic research in this area. The most up-to-date and accurate information can be obtained directly from Thales.
Let's hope the company remembers that next time somebody posts information about security flaws in its systems.
I therefore wish to withdraw my earlier request for you to remove or disable access to the material in question and apologise for any distress it may have caused.
But as Young points out:
Credit for Thales' recantation goes to incorruptible security critic Ross Anderson who blogged and telephoned Thales to thrash the zealots
Indeed. And it really shouldn't be necessary for professors of computer security to waste their time exposing abusive DMCA takedowns in this way, when they could be more usefully winkling out yet more dangerous flaws in hardware security modules, for example....

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  1. icon
    Ninja (profile), 24 Jan 2013 @ 2:51am

    Instead of trying to censor such things why didn't they grab the opportunities to improve their products? Weird times when you risk getting sued/jailed for pointing security holes or other flaws.

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