The value of vulnerabilities

To disclose or not to disclose? That is the question

The value in vulnerabilities

Vulnerabilities are becoming a valuable commodity. There were rumours circulating that the recent WMF vulnerability, which was exploited before the public had any knowledge of the issue, was sold for $4,000 - though of course it was just a rumour and remains unconfirmed. Suppose it were true. I doubt it would be the first case of this happening, and I'm certain that it won't be the last. There are even companies like iDefense and 3Com who are willing to pay security researchers for unpublished vulnerabilities, and therefore take over the process of vendor disclosure. How do you think this affects vulnerability research? No matter which way you look at it, vulnerabilities today are worth cold hard cash.

While the programs available from iDefense and 3Com might not be a big draw for corporations with security research teams, they do make a huge difference for independent researchers. Because of these programs, it's now possible for an independent researcher to devote all of his time to this sort of research. Providing he is good at finding vulnerabilities, he can now make a living at it, and this sort of work can become a full time endeavor. I think that's pretty awesome.

The ethics of vulnerabilities

Some people might find the ethics behind selling vulnerabilities to be somewhat questionable. Shouldn't security researchers disclose this information out of the kindness of their heart? Perhaps. But should we then expect security researchers to audit commercial software, which is sold for profit, and to do so for free? If there are ethical issues in the sale of vulnerabilities, what's ethical about selling very insecure software in the first place? While it's impossible to write software without vulnerabilities, it's pretty obvious that some companies don't even try to create secure products - and thus, ethics don't seem to come into play for a company that's focused only on the bottom line. Making secure software costs time and money, and corporations are unlikely to devote time and money to this problem if it doesn't have a significant impact on the bottom line.

What side of the fence to do you sit on? Do you believe that vulnerabilities only become a real threat after they've been publicised? Or are these issues a threat regardless of their public disclosure?

Why we need responsible, public disclosure

Personally, I believe that vulnerabilities pose a real threat long before they are publicly disclosed. The notion that publicly disclosing these issues puts people at risk - long after the vendor has been notified, and months or even years have passed without any sort of public notification - seems ignorant and self-serving. This view also seems like nothing more than an attempt to divert the blame for insecure software and a poor remediation process away from where it belongs: those who created the software. The bottom line is that after a vulnerability is discovered and reported to a vendor, the systems are still vulnerable to the issue, regardless of whether or not someone decides to make the information public.

And, to clarify, I'm not saying that posting an exploit to Bugtraq before even contacting a vendor (or perhaps, just a few hours after contacting them) is responsible. It's not. I'm also not saying that it doesn't put people at risk. It takes time to fix these issues, and I'm not trying to downplay the difficulty in making patches for widely deployed commercial software. However, there should be some sort of limitation here - a vendor that keeps its head in the sand and refuses to acknowledge a vulnerability publicly isn't helping anyone.

I think it's time that vendors start to acknowledge issues publicly before they release the patches, particularly in the event that the patching is going to take them several months - or in some cases, more than a year. At the least acknowledge the issue, and provide people with some sort of mitigation for it.

Ultimately, I believe that security researchers are doing us all a favour. That's something that they deserve to be rewarded for. While responsible disclosure is important, there are also limitations to reasonable vendor response times - because people are at risk long before the public disclosure. In the end, security researchers aren't the ones creating the vulnerabilities, they're just the ones finding them.

Jason Miller manages the Focus IDS area for SecurityFocus and is a threat analyst for Symantec Corporation.

This article originally appeared in Security Focus.

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