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Researchers: Flaw auctions would improve security

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Yet, a free-market system allowing researchers to sell confirmed vulnerabilities to all comers would likely help software become more secure, said Greg Hoglund, a security researcher and CEO of reverse engineering firm HB Gary. Such auctions would be a significant incentive for Microsoft and other companies to put more money into security, he said.

"If you actually have bad guys posting stuff and bad guys buying stuff, then that's really going to raise the awareness of Microsoft or whoever," Hoglund said. "It turns up the heat under the vendor to put even more effort behind their software security."

Turning to auctions to maximize a security researcher's profits and fairly value security research is not a new idea, Hoglund said. Two years ago, he had reserved the domain "zerobay.com" and intended to create an auction site, but worries over liability caused him to scuttle the plan a few days before the site went live, he said.

The security researcher "fearwall" who initially attempted to sell the information about the bug in Microsoft Excel believes such auctions would create additional market forces to support more secure software.

"A publicly auctioned vulnerability would create a healthy competition between the owner of the application and (third-party security) companies," he said.

Arguments that cybercriminals would be able to use such a marketplace to improve their attack software are unfounded, he added.

"eBay is not a black market where anyone can buy and sell the information and stay anonymous," he said. "You can buy a weapon at the store or on the street and use it to commit a crime or to protect yourself. What matters is that you are less likely to commit a crime when you buy it at the store."

Researchers and software makers would also benefit from such a marketplace, said David Aitel, principal researcher and president of security consulting firm Immunity. Auctions would likely result in better pay for independent vulnerability researchers and might actually be cheaper in the long run for software makers, he said.

"It is cheaper to pay a researcher for a flaw than to invest in an extensive audit of a product," Aitel said. "That $1,200 is less than a day of consulting--it's a bargain basement deal as far as (the software vendors) are concerned."

Aitel placed a bid on the auction for the highlighter and one-page document, not to gain information about a vulnerability, but to procure a memorable artifact of the vulnerability disclosure debate, he said.

"You are buying into the mystique," Aitel said.

At present, the only options for security researchers looking to sell flaws are to either contact the vendor directly in exchange for an acknowledgment in the eventual disclosure of the flaw or to participate in one of two programs. The iDefense Vulnerability Contributor Program pays anywhere between $100 to $1,000 for a flaw depending on the severity and the popularity of the software program, with quarterly bonuses for prolific flaw finders and loyalty. The 3Com Zero Day Initiative does not disclose its rates for vulnerabilities but the program also rewards prolific submissions and loyalty.

The economy could evolve from a few companies with such programs to a third-party auction system, said David Endler, director of security research for 3Com's TippingPoint.

"There is an increase of awareness among security vendors in the value of leveraging independent security researchers, as is evident in the creation of multiple public and private vulnerability reward programs," he said. "While we think an unmoderated vulnerability auction could have negative repercussions, competition combined with market maturation, may open the doors for an independent, trusted third-party vulnerability auction house."

However, the requirements for such a business would be steep, he said. Just as Sotheby's attests to the authenticity of historic artifacts in its auctions, a vulnerability auction house would have to have a way to vouch for the accuracy of a researcher's claims. Furthermore, to prevent illegal use of the information, the service would have to have an agreement with the buyer regarding use of the vulnerability, Endler said. Finally, the software vendor in whose product the vulnerability resides should have right of first refusal, he said.

Those requisites may never be satisfied, nor do they have to be, said HB Gary's Hoglund.

"The fact is that bad guys will get their hands on exploit material regardless of whether there is an auction house," he said. "Further more, if people see exploit research being sold for a nice amount of money, then it will get researchers interested in pounding on these products again and finding more bugs."

To Hoglund, a free market for vulnerabilities means more pressure for secure software.

"In no model does the security of the software itself go down, it only goes up," he said.

CORRECTION: The story gave too much credence to the belief of security researchers that the second eBay auction would have also resulted in the sale of vulnerability information. "fearwall" has denied that information on the vulnerability would have been delivered to the winner of the second auction.

This article was originally published at at SecurityFocus

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