A Different Perspective On The PTV Website Vulnerability Debacle

The story about Australian teenager Joshua Rogers who identified a vulnerability in the website of the Public Transport Victoria (PTV) and subsequently reported the vulnerability to PTV, and PTV’s now infamous response of reporting Joshua to the police has been well covered.

Critics of PTV’s reaction point out that their behavior is a continuation of the terrible idea of demonizing and criminalizing security research, similar to the story of First State Superannuation of course, Weev’s famous dust up with ATT, among other similar stories.

The common thinking, as is pointed out in a CSO article on the PTV situation, is that those people with the ability to hack are bad or dangerous, ignoring the fact that many are indeed good people who are trying to help out and earn an honest living.

I suspect that the security community expected PTV to not only fix the vulnerability, which they did, but also to thank Joshua, or even reward him; certainly not report him to the police. This seems sensible, but I’d like to offer a different perspective on how this may have come about.

First, though, I’d like to point out that I am not defending PTV’s actions. I generally find the behavior of companies who respond to above-board reports of vulnerabilities in their products with lawsuits and threats of legal action to be reprehensible and dangerous to society. However, in this case, I see some logic.

In this particular case, PTV was notified that someone found a vulnerability that allowed access to a database containing customer information, including credit card numbers. This is a serious problem for PTV. I am not aware of the nature of the conversation or communication between PTV and Joshua, but I would bet PTV asked if Joshua had accessed any records, made any copies of the data or communicated the vulnerability to anyone else. Assuming that did happen, I would assume that Joshua, who appears to be an upstanding person, said no to those questions, assuming the answer really was no.

Would PTV be performing proper due diligence by accept Joshua’s word? If you were a PTV customer whose information was exposed, or a bank who would have to eat the cost of resulting credit card fraud, or even PTV itself who might be sued for damages, would you find this to be acceptable? Or would you rather demonstrate to those stakeholders that you took all reasonable actions by fixing the problem promptly and asking the police to investigate if data may have been stole ? Wouldn’t it seem more acceptable to let Joshua convince the police that he did not do anything nefarious with the information he had access to?

There is not enough information to know if this is really what motivated PTV, or if it indeed was the normal knee-jerk reaction to dangerous hacker-types who defiled their reputation with his supposed misdeeds of observing and reporting a security flaw. Time will likely tell.

***Update Jan 13, 2014
Dave Lewis posted the transcript of his interview with Joshua Rogers. The interview sheds more light on the situation, and it’s still hard to tell what PTV’s motivation for involving the police is. What is interesting, though, is that PTV never acknowledged Joshua’s report.

Photo by Brian Searle

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