Zero-days: Two Questions from Perlroth

I am currently reading “This Is How They Tell Me The World Ends” by Nicole Perlroth, only on page 17 in Chapter 2, so a long ways to go before completing the 471 page tome. While only 17 pages in, there are already some annoyances to be sure, but the tone, scope, and feel of the book is enjoyable so far. I am not sure if I will do a full review at the end or perhaps write some blogs specific to topics like this one. It obviously didn’t take long at all to get to the point where I thought a quick blog with my perspective might be interesting to some.


At the end of Chapter 1, Perlroth summarizes what she sees as the long road ahead for her to tackle the subject of zero-day exploits. This follows her describing one dinner with a variety of security folks from all sides of the topic but seems to center around two zero-day exploit writers not answering some ‘basic’ questions like “who do you sell to?” She uses this to enumerate a list of questions around the topic of zero-day exploits that she would have to face to cover the topic thoroughly. Of the 28 questions she posed to herself, two stood out to me but requires two more to better set the stage:

Who did they sell their zero-days to?
To whom would they not?
How did they rationalize the sale of a zero-day to a foreign enemy? Or to governments with gross human rights violations?

Depending on who you ask, or when you ask them, you may be told these are simple questions and answers, very complex, or like an onion.


When you ask if an exploit broker will sell to governments with “gross human rights violations“, that gets complicated in today’s world of geopolitics while remaining much more simple as far as morals and ethics go. If gross human rights violations are the line in the sand, meaning regular human rights violations are acceptable (?), then it cuts out all of the biggest players in the game; United States, China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. Before any of my European friends head straight to the comment section, I am not forgetting or neglecting you. Some of the European countries maintain teams that are extremely accomplished and arguably better than the countries I listed. Why? You don’t see their names being splashed in every other headline and attribution claim. Further, some of the most elite zero-day writers from the late 80’s and early 90’s were European. I used to be privy to a handful of some of those exploits and on occasion, brokered (traded, not sold) them between groups. Further, I don’t associate most European countries with the other five as far as gross human rights violations, at least not in recent history.

Since zero-day exploit writers do sell to some of those countries at least (US, CN, RU), and presumably some sell to the other two (IR, KP), now we’re talking shades of grey or onions, depending on your favorite analogy. You’re left trying to draw a line in the sand as to which human rights violations you can accept and at that point, does the question even have relevance? I don’t want to get into a pissing war over who is holier or more evil than the other because each of the five countries above has their long list of sordid atrocities.


Let’s jump back to the third question there, the notion of “foreign enemy”. This is peculiar since the book had already thrown around the term “mercenary” several times in the prologue, and that scenario answers the question simply. A mercenary sells their services to the highest bidder typically, ethics takes a seat in the trunk if it even comes along for the ride. So a simple summary is that some will sell to the highest bidder, end of story.

But does any of the above really matter? Long ago I heard a great quote that is both funny and sardonic, that I think has relevance to the other question:

“We refuse to join any organization that would have us as a member.”

If we’re discussing the notion of being involved with another group (country in this case), isn’t the ethics of selling a zero-day that you know will potentially be used against your own country a lesson in abject self examination? If you are willing to sell to such an organization, one that might cause a power outage, risk human life, or undermine security and privacy as only a nation-state can, is that the kind of organization you want to be a part of? If such an organization or country is willing to buy zero-day exploits from you to use for those purposes, is that the type of organization you want to be affiliated with?

If the answer is no, then Perlroth has the beginning of her answer. If the answer is yes, then we’re back to square mercenary. Pretty simple maybe?

One thought on “Zero-days: Two Questions from Perlroth

  1. I could say a lot here, and it’s kind of tempting, but I think I should restrict myself to these observations:

    (1) These issues have deep histories, and should probably be treated statistically rather than as black&white issues.

    (2) Based on stated intentions and observed choices: the USA approach is to overshare information (because 1st amendment law, regulations and court precedents), while the traditional government approach of other countries is to delete embarrassing information.

    The consequences have far more nuance than I can describe. Including, in the context of outsourcing.

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