After hearing rumors that RealJukebox might be reporting information about its users back to RealNetworks, 46-year-old Richard M. Smith decided to play a few CDs for more than their musical merits. He discovered that RealJukebox was, in his words, “too talkative” about its listeners. In November, after The New York Times broke the Internet security guru’s findings, RealNetworks changed its privacy policies and began a massive red-faced spin campaign.
A champion of Internet privacy, Smith has also uncovered the mischievous (and potentially disastrous) ActiveX Trojan horses, and aided in the discovery of Hotmail’s “glitch,” a back door through which anyone’s email could be read. With a handful of other software security junkies like himself, he also helped to track down the Melissa virus author by tracing America Online log-ins and phone records.
Programming since he was in high school, Smith worked at a variety of companies creating software development tools before co-founding Phar Lap Software, named after the speedy Australian racehorse. After 13 years at the races, he officially retired several months ago. Smith first became interested in security issues in 1996, when he stumbled across a problem with Netscape Communication’s email reader, finding that if you knew the right HTML, you could send an email message that caused the recipient’s computer to lock up. Since then, he has been on the prowl for similar security breaches, concentrating on mainstream software and mercilessly taxing his packet sniffer. When he finds a problem, he “bangs on the vendor” until they answer, and then he goes public.
Smith’s work has brought him fame in the computer community, but he laughs at the word “guru.” He says, “One of the reasons I can look good here is because not that many people are looking at security around client site software; most people are involved with servers. There’s not that many of us doing this kind of security, but ironically, this is software that everybody uses.”
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