Feeds

Exploit Code on Trial

Publicity shots

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

Choosing a cloud hosting partner with confidence

Security pros gathering at a Stanford University Law School conference on responsible vulnerability disclosure Saturday harmonized on the principle that vendors should be privately notified of holes in their products, and given at least some time to produce a patch before any public disclosure is made. But there was pronounced disagreement on the question of whether or not researchers should publicly release proof-of-concept code to demonstrate a vulnerability.

UK-based security researcher David Litchfield, of NGS Software, said he publicly swore off the practice after an exploit he released to demonstrate a hole in Microsoft's SQL Server became the template for January's grotesquely virulent Slammer worm. At Saturday's conference, held by the university's Center for Internet and Society, Litchfield said he wrestled with the moral issues for some time. "At the end of the day, part of my stuff, which was intended to educate, did something nefarious, and I don't want to be a part of that," said Litchfield, a prolific bug-finder.

That kind of soul-searching is music to Microsoft's ears. The disclosure standards promulgated by the Organization for Internet Safety, an industry effort founded by Microsoft and handful of large security companies, require researchers to withhold any exploits from the public for at least 30 days following the first public advisory on a bug. But Redmond would like to see researchers abstain entirely, said Steve Lipner, the software-maker's director of security engineering strategy. "We prefer that finders wait before releasing exploit code, or, better, don't release exploit code," he said. "It's something where ... we're trying to ask for cooperation, instead of something that we're trying to mandate or dictate."

California-based security vendor eEye and the Polish white hat hacker group LSD -- both prodigious exploit publishers in the past -- have taken to withholding proof-of-concept code when disclosing serious security holes.

Len Sassaman, security architect at the e-privacy company Anonymizer, says the attitude shift endangers an important part of the Internet's healing cycle when a new vulnerability is discovered. "If the researchers are discouraged from releasing working exploit code... we lose a valuable tool there," he said. "We don't get the proof-of-concept code, we don't get the motivation to create the patch on the vendor side, and to implement it on the user side."

Suppressing exploits also threatens to strip security research of the rigor of serious scientific inquiry, said Matt Blaze, a researcher at AT&T Laboratories. And network defenders sometimes use proof-of-concept code to evaluate techniques to prevent a compromise, to help detect exploitation of a new vulnerability, and to test that a patch actually works. Conference attendee Warren Stramiello, a network administrator at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, challenged Microsoft's Lipner to come up with a way to do all of that without the help of working code. Lipner countered that exploits aren't very useful to white hats as they're made out to be. "The set of users that would use exploit code to protect themselves... is probably much smaller than the set of people who would be put at risk by it," Lipner said.

Of course, black hat hackers have shown that they're perfectly capable of writing their own exploits. Even the author of the Slammer worm author demonstrated enough skill to have written the worm from scratch, without Litchfield's help. "If anything," said Litchfield, "I saved him 20 minutes."

Copyright © 2003,

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

More from The Register

next story
FYI: OS X Yosemite's Spotlight tells Apple EVERYTHING you're looking for
It's on by default – didn't you read the small print?
Russian hackers exploit 'Sandworm' bug 'to spy on NATO, EU PCs'
Fix imminent from Microsoft for Vista, Server 2008, other stuff
Edward who? GCHQ boss dodges Snowden topic during last speech
UK spies would rather 'walk' than do 'mass surveillance'
Microsoft pulls another dodgy patch
Redmond makes a hash of hashing add-on
NOT OK GOOGLE: Android images can conceal code
It's been fixed, but hordes won't have applied the upgrade
Apple grapple: Congress kills FBI's Cupertino crypto kybosh plan
Encryption would lead us all into a 'dark place', claim G-Men
'LulzSec leader Aush0k' found to be naughty boy not worthy of jail
15 months home detention leaves egg on feds' faces as they grab for more power
China is ALREADY spying on Apple iCloud users, claims watchdog
Attack harvests users' info at iPhone 6 launch
prev story

Whitepapers

Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Why and how to choose the right cloud vendor
The benefits of cloud-based storage in your processes. Eliminate onsite, disk-based backup and archiving in favor of cloud-based data protection.
Three 1TB solid state scorchers up for grabs
Big SSDs can be expensive but think big and think free because you could be the lucky winner of one of three 1TB Samsung SSD 840 EVO drives that we’re giving away worth over £300 apiece.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.