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Responsible or Irresponsible Disclosure?—NFL Style

It’s funny to contrast this April to last April, at least as an NFL fan. Last year the lockout was in force, the negotiations stalled, and fans wondered how billionaires could argue with millionaires when the economy was in the crapper. Between the Peyton Manning lottery, the upcoming draft, and the Saints Bounty situation, there hasn’t been a dull moment for pro football fans since the Super Bowl ended.

Speaking of the Saints, even after suspensions and fines, more nasty aspects of the story keep surfacing. Last week, we actually heard Gregg Williams, Defensive Coordinator of the Saints, implore his guys to target injured players, ‘affect’ the head, and twist ankles in the pile. Kind of nauseating. OK, very nauseating. I guess it’s true that most folks don’t want to see how the sausage is made – they just want to enjoy the taste.

But the disclosure was anything but clean, Sean Pamphilon, the director who posted the audio, did not have permission to post it. He was a guest of a guest at that meeting, there to capture the life of former Saints player Steve Gleason, who is afflicted with ALS. The director argues he had the right. The player (and the Saints) insist he didn’t. Clearly the audio put the bounty situation in a different light for fans of the game. Before it was deplorable, but abstract. After listening to the tape, it was real. He really said that stuff. Really paid money for his team to intentionally hurt opponents. Just terrible.

But there is still the dilemma of posting the tape without permission. Smart folks come down on both sides of this discussion. Many believe Pamphilon should have abided by the wishes of his host and not posted the audio. He wouldn’t have been there if not for the graciousness of both Steve Gleason and the Saints. But he was and he clearly felt the public had a right to know, given the history of the NFL burying audio & video evidence of wrongdoing (Spygate, anyone?).

Legalities aside, this is a much higher profile example of the same responsible disclosure debate we security folks have every week. Does the public have a need to know? Is the disclosure of a zero day attack doing a public service? Or should the researcher wait until the patch goes live, when they get to enjoy a credit buried in the patch notice?

Cynically, some folks disclosing zero-days are in it for the publicity. Sure, they can blame unresponsive vendors, but at the end of the day, some folks seek the spotlight by breaking a juicy zero-day. Likewise, you can make a case that Pamphilon was able to draw a lot of attention to himself and his projects (past, current, and future) by posting the audio. Obviously you can’t buy press coverage like that. Does that make it wrong – that the discloser gets the benefit of notoriety?

There is no right or wrong answer here. There are just differing opinions. I’m not trying to open Pandora’s box and entertain a lot of discussion on responsible disclosure. Smart people have differing opinions and nothing I say will change that. My point was to draw the parallel between the Saints bounty tape disclosure and disclosing zero day attacks. Hopefully that provides some additional context for the moral struggles of researchers deciding whether to go public with their findings or not.

—Mike Rothman

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