Former Uber safety chief convicted of overlaying up 2016 information breach


SAN FRANCISCO — A former chief safety officer for Uber was convicted Wednesday of federal costs stemming from funds he quietly licensed to hackers who breached the ride-hailing firm in 2016.

Joe Sullivan was discovered responsible of obstructing justice for preserving the breach from the Federal Commerce Fee, which had been probing Uber’s privateness protections on the time, and of actively hiding a felony.

The decision ended a dramatic case that pitted Sullivan, a distinguished safety professional who was an early prosecutor of cybercrimes for the San Francisco U.S. lawyer’s workplace, towards his former authorities workplace. In between prosecuting hackers and being prosecuted, Sullivan served as the highest safety govt at Fb, Uber and Cloudflare.

Decide William H. Orrick didn’t set a date for sentencing. Sullivan could attraction if post-trial motions fail to set the decision apart.

“Mr. Sullivan’s sole focus — on this incident and all through his distinguished profession — has been guaranteeing the protection of individuals’s private information on the web,” Sullivan lawyer David Angeli stated after the 12-member jury rendered its unanimous verdict on the fourth day of deliberations.

Even with out Sullivan’s job historical past, the trial would have been intently watched as the primary main legal case introduced towards a company govt over a breach by outsiders.

It additionally could also be one of many final: Within the 5 years since Sullivan was fired, payoffs to extortionists, together with those that steal delicate information, have develop into so routine that some safety corporations and insurance coverage firms focus on dealing with the transactions.

“Paying out the ransom I feel is extra widespread than we’re led to imagine. There’s an angle that’s much like a fender bender,” stated Michael Hamilton, founding father of safety agency Crucial Perception.

FBI leaders, whereas formally discouraging the apply, have stated they will not pursue the individuals and firms that pay ransoms in the event that they don’t violate sanctions prohibiting funds to named legal teams particularly near the Russian authorities.

New hacking disclosure requirements could make cyberspace less opaque

“This case will definitely make executives, incident responders and anyone else linked with deciding whether or not to pay or disclose ransom funds suppose just a little tougher about their authorized obligations. And that’s not a foul factor,” stated Brett Callow, who researches ransomware at safety agency Emsisoft. “As is, an excessive amount of occurs in shadows, and that lack of transparency can undermine cybersecurity efforts.”

Most safety professionals had been anticipating Sullivan’s acquittal, noting that he had stored the CEO and others who weren’t charged knowledgeable of what was occurring.

“Private legal responsibility for company choices with govt stakeholder enter is a brand new territory that’s considerably uncharted for safety executives,” stated Dave Shackleford, proprietor of Voodoo Safety. “I worry it would result in a scarcity of curiosity in our discipline, and elevated skepticism about infosec total.”

John Johnson, a “digital” chief info safety officer for a number of firms, agreed. “Your organization management might make decisions that may have very private repercussions to you and your way of life,” he stated. “Not saying the whole lot Joe did was proper or good, however we are able to’t bury our head and say it would by no means occur to us.”

Prosecutors argued in Sullivan’s case that his use of a nondisclosure settlement with the hackers was proof that he participated in a coverup. They stated the break-in was a hack that was adopted by extortion because the hackers threatened to publish the info they took, and so it mustn’t have certified for Uber’s bug bounty program to reward pleasant safety researchers.

However the actuality is that because the hacking of companies has gotten worse, the way in which firms have handled it has moved far previous the letter of the regulation when Sullivan was accused of breaking it.

Bug bounties normally require nondisclosure offers, a few of which final without end.

“Bug bounty applications are being misused to cover vulnerability info. Within the case of Uber, they have been used to cowl up a breach,” Katie Moussouris, who established a bug bounty program at Microsoft and now runs her personal vulnerability decision firm, stated in an interview.

The case towards Sullivan began when a hacker emailed Uber anonymously and described a safety lapse that allowed him and a accomplice to obtain information from one of many firm’s Amazon repositories. It emerged that they’d used a stray digital key Uber had left uncovered to get into the Amazon account, the place they discovered and extracted an unencrypted backup of knowledge on greater than 50 million Uber riders and 600,000 drivers.

Sullivan’s crew steered them towards Uber’s bounty program and famous that the highest payout underneath it was $10,000. The hackers stated they would want six figures and threatened to launch the info.

A protracted negotiation ensued that ended with a $100,000 fee and a promise from the hackers that they’d destroyed the info and wouldn’t disclose what they’d carried out. Whereas that appears like a coverup, testimony confirmed that Sullivan’s employees used the method to get clues that might make them the true identities of the perpetrators, which they felt was essential leverage to carry them to their phrase. The 2 have been later arrested and pleaded responsible to hacking costs, and one testified for the prosecution in Sullivan’s trial.

The obstruction cost drew energy from the truth that Uber on the time was nearing the tip of a Federal Commerce Fee investigation following a significant 2014 breach.

A cost of actively hiding a felony, or misprision, might additionally apply to most of the company chiefs who ship bitcoin to abroad hackers with out telling anybody else what occurred. Whereas the variety of these hush-ups is not possible to get, it’s clearly a big determine. In any other case, federal officers wouldn’t have pressed for recent legislation that may require ransomware notifications from vital infrastructure victims to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Safety Company.

The Securities and Trade Fee can also be pushing for more disclosure. The conviction shocked company safety and compliance leaders and can rivet their consideration on the small print of these guidelines.

What the SEC says about cybersecurity disclosure

The case towards Sullivan was weaker in some respects than one may count on from a trial geared toward setting a precedent.

Whereas he directed the response to the 2 hackers, many others on the firm have been within the loop, together with a lawyer on Sullivan’s crew, Craig Clark. Proof confirmed that Sullivan instructed Uber’s then-chief govt, Travis Kalanick, inside hours of studying concerning the menace himself, and that Kalanick accepted Sullivan’s technique. The corporate’s chief privateness lawyer, who was overseeing the response to the FTC, was knowledgeable, and the pinnacle of the corporate’s communications crew had particulars as properly.

Clark, the designated authorized lead on breaches, was given immunity to testify towards his former boss. On cross-examination, he acknowledged advising the crew that the assault wouldn’t should be disclosed if the hackers have been recognized, agreed to delete what they’d taken and will persuade the corporate that they’d not unfold the info additional, all of which finally got here to move.

Prosecutors have been left to problem “whether or not Joe Sullivan might have probably believed that,” as one among them put it in closing arguments Friday.

Sullivan’s lawyer Angeli stated that the true world functioned in another way from bug bounty beliefs and the insurance policies specified by firm manuals.

“On the finish of the day, Mr. Sullivan led a crew that labored tirelessly to guard Uber’s prospects,” Angeli instructed the jury.

The Kalanick era was one of rapid expansion and scandal

After Kalanick was compelled out of the corporate for unrelated scandals, his successor, Dara Khosrowshahi, got here in and realized of the breach. Sullivan depicted it to him as a routine payoff, prosecutors stated, modifying from one e mail the quantity of the payoff and the truth that the hackers had obtained unencrypted information, together with cellphone numbers, on tens of thousands and thousands of riders. After a later investigation turned up the total story, Khosrowshahi testified, he fired Sullivan for not telling him extra, sooner.

Keen to point out that it was working in a brand new period, the corporate helped the U.S. lawyer’s workplace construct a case towards Sullivan. And the prosecutors in flip unsuccessfully pressed Sullivan to implicate Kalanick, who would have been a far larger prize however was not damned by the surviving written proof, in line with individuals aware of the method.

Bug bounties have been by no means meant to supply as a lot cash to hackers as criminals or governments would pay. As an alternative, they have been designed to supply some money to these already inclined to remain above board.

However the firms are those paying the invoice even when the applications are run by exterior distributors reminiscent of HackerOne and Bugcrowd. Disputes between the researchers reporting the safety holes and the businesses with the holes at the moment are widespread.

The 2 sides differ over whether or not a bug was “in scope,” that means contained in the areas the place the corporate stated it needed assist. They differ over how a lot a bug is value, or whether it is nugatory as a result of others had already discovered it. They usually differ over how, or even when, the researcher can disclose the work after the bug has been mounted or the corporate opts to not change something.

The bounty platforms have arbitration procedures for these disputes, however because the firms are footing the invoice, many hackers see bias. An excessive amount of protesting, and so they get booted from the platform completely.

“Should you’re hacking on a bug bounty program for the love of hacking and making safety higher, that is the flawed purpose, as a result of you haven’t any management over whether or not an organization decides to patch in a well timed matter or not,” stated John Jackson, a researcher who in the reduction of on his bounty work and now sells vulnerability info when he can.

Casey Ellis, founding father of Bugcrowd, acknowledged that some firms use bounty applications to hush up issues that ought to have been disclosed underneath state or federal guidelines.

“That’s undoubtedly a factor that occurs,” Ellis stated.

Ransomware numbers appear to be falling, but that news might not be as good as it sounds

Ransomware assaults have been uncommon when Sullivan was charged, rising dramatically within the years that adopted to develop into a menace to U.S. nationwide safety.

The methods in these assaults have additionally shifted.

Originally of 2020, most ransomware merely encrypted information and demanded cash for the important thing to unlock them. By the tip of that 12 months, most ransom assaults included the outright theft of information, establishing a second ransom demand to forestall their public launch, in line with a 2021 report by the Ransomware Activity Pressure, an industry-led group that features representatives from the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Safety Company, the FBI, and the Secret Service.

Extra not too long ago, cryptocurrency exchanges have been robbed after which negotiated to provide massive payments to get these funds again, a freewheeling apply bearing little resemblance to conventional bounties.

“Particularly over the previous six months within the crypto area, the mannequin is ‘construct it till we get hacked, and we’ll determine it out from there,’ ” stated Ellis.

As common payouts zoomed previous Sullivan’s, into the a whole lot of 1000’s of {dollars}, extra companies turned to insurance coverage firms for predictability.

However usually, the insurance companies reasoned it was cheaper to pay than to cowl the harm from misplaced information. Some paid frequently, guaranteeing regular earnings for the gangs.

Making funds unlawful, as some have proposed, wouldn’t truly cease them, the FBI has stated. It will as an alternative give the extortionists one more membership to carry over their victims after fee is made.

At the very least up to now, Congress has agreed, declining to ban the transactions. Which implies that offers like Sullivan’s will proceed to occur each week.

Will all of them be disclosed when required underneath state legal guidelines or federal consent decrees? Most likely not.

However don’t count on those that hush issues as much as find yourself in handcuffs.



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