Daniel Kaminsky, a security researcher known for his discovery of a fundamental flaw in the fabric of the internet, died Friday at his home in San Francisco. He was 42.
In 2008, Kaminsky was widely hailed as a latter-day, digital Paul Revere after he found a serious flaw in the internet’s basic plumbing that could allow skilled coders to take over websites, siphon off bank credentials or even shut down the internet. Kaminsky alerted the Department of Homeland Security, executives at Microsoft and Cisco, and other internet security experts to the problem and helped spearhead a patch.
His aunt, Dr Toby Maurer, said the cause was diabetes ketoacidosis, a serious diabetic condition that led to his frequent hospitalization in recent years.
He was a respected practitioner of “penetration testing”, the business of compromising the security of computer systems at the behest of owners who want to harden their systems from attack. It was a profession that his mother, Trudy Maurer, said he first developed a knack for at four years old after his father gifted him a computer from Radio Shack. By age five, Maurer said, Kaminsky had taught himself to code.
Without her knowledge, Kaminsky had been examining military websites. The administrator vowed to “punish” him by cutting off the family’s internet access. Maurer warned the administrator that if he made good on his threat, she would take out an advertisement in the San Francisco Chronicle denouncing the Pentagon’s security.
His childhood paralleled the 1983 movie War Games, in which a young child, played by Matthew Broderick, unwittingly accesses a US military supercomputer. When Kaminsky was 11, his mother said, she received an angry phone call from someone who identified himself as a network administrator for the Western United States. The administrator said someone at her residence was “monkeying around in territories where he shouldn’t be monkeying around”.
“I will take out an ad that says, ‘Your security is so crappy, even an 11-year-old can break it,’” Maurer recalled telling the administrator, in an interview Monday. They settled on a compromise punishment: three days without internet. One decade after he lost his access to the internet, Kaminsky wound up saving it. What Kaminsky discovered in 2008 was a problem with the internet’s basic address system, known as the Domain Name System, or DNS, a dynamic phone book that converts human-friendly web addresses like NYTimes.com and Google. com into their machine-friendly numeric counterparts. He found a way that thieves or spies could covertly manipulate DNS traffic so that a person typing the website for a bank would instead be redirected to an impostor site that could steal the user’s account number and password.
Kaminsky’s first call was to Paul Vixie, a longtime steward of the internet’s DNS system. The usually unflappable Vixie recalled that his panic grew as he listened to Kaminsky’s explanation. “I realised we were looking down the gun barrel of history,” Vixie recalled. “It meant everything in the digital universe was going to have to get patched.”
Vixie asked Kaminsky if he had a fix in mind. “He said, ‘We are going to get all the makers of DNS software to coordinate a fix, implement it at the same time and keep it a secret until I present my findings at Black Hat,’ “ Vixie said, referring to an annual hacking conference in Las Vegas. Kaminsky, then the director of penetration testing at IOActive, a security firm based in Seattle, had developed a close working relationship with Microsoft. He and Vixie persuaded Microsoft to host a secret convention of the world’s senior cybersecurity experts.
“I remember calling people and telling them, ‘I’m not at liberty to tell you what it is, but there’s this thing and you will need to get on a plane and meet us in this room at Microsoft on such-and-such date,’ “ Vixie said. Over the course of several days, they cobbled together a solution in stealth, a fix that Vixie compared to dog excrement. But given the threat of internet apocalypse, he recalled it as being the best dog excrement “we could have ever come up with”. By the time Kaminsky took the stage at Black Hat that August, the web had been spared. Kaminsky, who typically donned a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, appeared onstage in a suit his mother had bought for him. She had also requested that he wear closed-toed shoes. He sort of complied – twirling onto the stage in roller skates.
When his talk was complete, Kaminsky was approached by a stranger in the crowd. It was the administrator who had kicked Kaminsky off the internet years earlier. Now, he wanted to thank Kaminsky and to ask for an introduction to “the meanest mother he ever met”. While his DNS fix was Kaminsky’s most celebrated contribution to internet security, it was hardly his only contribution. In 2005, after researchers discovered Sony BMG was covertly installing software on PCs to combat music piracy, Sony executives played down the move. Kaminsky forced the issue into public awareness after discovering Sony’s software had infected more than 568,000 computers.
“He did things because they were the right thing to do, not because they would elicit financial gain,” Maurer, said. (When a reporter asked Kaminsky why he did not exploit the DNS flaw to become immensely wealthy, he said that doing so would have been morally wrong, and that he did not want his mother to have to visit him in prison.) Silicon Valley’s giants often sought Kaminsky’s expertise and recruited him with lucrative job offers to serve as their chief information security officers. He politely declined, preferring the quiet yeoman’s work of internet security. In a community known for its biting, sometimes misogynistic discourse on Twitter, Kaminsky stood out for his consistent empathy. He disdained Twitter pile-ons and served as a generous mentor to journalists and aspiring hackers. Kaminsky would often quietly foot a hotel or travel bill to Black Hat for those who could not otherwise afford it. When a mentee broke up with her boyfriend, Kaminsky bought her a plane ticket to see him, believing they were meant to be. (They married.)
He was outspoken when privacy and security were on the line. After the FBI tried to force Apple, in federal court, to weaken the encryption of its iPhones in 2015, James Comey, who was then the FBI director, testified to Congress in 2016 that he was not asking for a backdoor, but for Apple to “take the vicious guard dog away and let us pick the lock”. “I am that vicious guard dog, and that used to be a compliment,” Kaminsky told this reporter at the time. “The question for Mr. Comey is: What is the policy of the United States right now? Is it to make things more secure or to make them less secure?”
- Daniel Kaminsky- “The Savior of Internet Security” Dies at 42
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