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Researchers: Flaw auctions would improve security

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The auction may have set a record price for a highlighter pen and an 8-by-11-inch sheet of paper.

The last reported bid before the listing was deleted without ceremony was $1,200. The price might seem excessive, but the value lay in what some researchers believed was on the paper: Information about an unpatched vulnerability in Microsoft Excel.

This week's understated auction represented the second attempt of an anonymous security researcher to make money from a vulnerability in Microsoft's spreadsheet application, only to be shut down by online auction company eBay within 48 hours. Last week, the seller tried the direct approach - stating that the item for sale was information about the vulnerability - before being shut down for "encouraging illegal activity".

"The idea was to estimate a market value for a major vulnerability and to see who would be interested to obtain such information," said the seller, who used the handle "fearwall" in the initial auction and was contacted by SecurityFocus through eBay's email service. "The listing clearly stated that the information would be delivered to researchers only."

This week, the seller only mentioned the vulnerability briefly in the auction description and limited the sale to a highlighter and a "letter-sized frameable poster promoting the importance of information security."

"The poster also contains the website address of a respectable security research organization that helped me to investigate the vulnerability and my personal -mail address," stated the description of the auction posted by "smk778". The person initially contacted by SecurityFocus, "fearwall," confirmed that he was the person who posted the second auction. eBay also confirmed the connection.

Several security experts believed the auction to be an indirect attempt to sell the vulnerability. However, "fearwall" stressed that he did not intend to sell information on the vulnerability, only memorabilia.

"The vulnerability was not a part of the second auction," he said.

By late Tuesday, eBay suspended bidding and deleted the listing, citing violations of policies regarding charity donations and against circumventing fees. The suspension was not because of the seller's previous auction, said Catherine England, a spokeswoman for eBay.</ p>

"When listings are reviewed, they are considered on the basis of their own merits, so a variety of factors come into play," said Catherine England, a spokeswoman for eBay. "If the listing is determined (by eBay) to encourage illegal activity or violate copyright then it would be pulled from the site. A listing that violates any of our policies would be pulled."

The twin auctions have piqued interest among security researchers about the effect that free-market vulnerability sales could have on software security. While the idea of selling vulnerability research has gained more traction amongst the security industry and research communities, buying flaw information is still a controversial practice. Currently, two companies actively encourage such sales: VeriSign's iDefense and 3Com's TippingPoint. Both companies have created initiatives aimed at procuring original vulnerability research from independent flaw finders.

Software makers tend to frown upon such tactics because the exposure of vulnerabilities can significantly undermine trust in their product and even their stock evaluations. Microsoft typically will criticize researchers who publicly disclose flaws before giving the company adequate time, typically at least 30 days and frequently many months, to fix the problem. The software giant contends that responsible disclosure precludes vulnerability auctions.

"The first concern is customers' safety," Microsoft said in a statement sent to SecurityFocus. "That is why Microsoft continues to encourage responsible disclosure of vulnerabilities; because it minimizes the risk to computer users. We believe the commonly accepted practice of reporting vulnerabilities directly to a vendor serves everyone's best interests."

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

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