September 26, 2011
A black and white issue?
Not long ago we were working on some security documentation, where one of the writers had written about a whitelist. This term was created by analogy to blacklist. In the context of security, a blacklist contains a list of terms or entities that you want to disallow (block). A whitelist, in contrast, contains a list of only the terms or entities that you will allow. (Whitelists are considered more secure, because it's almost impossible to define a blacklist that will anticipate — hence block — all the entities that malicious users might try to attack your site with.)
Our style guide (MSTP) is unequivocal about the terms blacklist and whitelist: "Do not use." They insist that we write around the terms, using alternatives like these:
The style guide doesn’t explain its recommendation. It's not like the terms are unknown in the industry; whitelist gets more than 8 million hits on Google. In fact, it's arguable that whitelist is a more recognized term than the recommended alternatives:
- Blocked Senders list (for blacklist)
- Safe Recipients list (for whitelist)
- blocked or safe programs
Us: This program lets you define a safe senders list.
Them: Do you mean a whitelist?
Them: Then why didn't you say so?
The ban is instead for geopolitical reasons. The term blacklist has various unsavory connotations anyway, but the real problem is that the terms whitelist and blacklist suggest a dichotomy in which white=safe/accepted/good and black=unsafe/undesirable/bad. One of my writers raised a mild objection to this, arguing that the audience for our security documentation would not infer any sociological undertones from its use.
Maybe. It's always a tough argument to make that other people won't interpret something in some particular way. But anyway, you can see why as a corporation we want to stay well away from anything like this that might raise unsavory issues.
But that puts us in a bit of a dilemma. The fact is that because the term whitelist is well known in the industry, people will search our documentation for it. And if the term never appears, what then?
P.S. The style guide does not appear to have an entry for white-hat hacking (versus black-hat hacking). I guess that doesn't come up enough to warrant its own entry.
Presumably because no color-based dichotomy is implied, it is not adamant about other color-based terms. For example, it does disrecommend the following, but only because they're jargon:
And of course there's no issue with white space.
- black box ("a unit of hardware or software in which the internal structure is unknown, but its function is documented")
- black hole ("a condition of an internetwork where packets are lost without an indication of the error")