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Groups argue over merits of flaw bounties

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Vulnerability researchers, software makers, and security companies that buy information about software flaws found little in common during a panel discussion on Wednesday debating the merits of vulnerability-purchasing programs.

The discussion, wrapping up the first day of the CanSecWest Security Conference, left software makers and the companies that run vulnerability-purchasing programs at loggerheads over whether paying for information about flaws makes sense. Such initiatives help secure the end user, argued Michael Sutton, director of the vulnerability research labs for VeriSign subsidiary iDefense, which pioneered the first permanent bounty program for security vulnerabilities.

"You as an end user have to always wait for the vendor to issue the patch," he said. "If I get a vulnerability to the vendor, that is a good thing, (because) the end game is getting the patch out."

The contentious dispute, replete with raised voices and friendly barbs, underscored the disagreement over the value of bug bounty programs among the three major players in the community: security researchers, software makers and end users.

In August 2002, iDefense established the Vulnerability Contributor Program, the first major program to offer researchers cash for details about undisclosed flaws. It later added cash bonuses to the top contributors every quarter and year as well as rewards for referring other researchers.

Rival TippingPoint, a subsidiary of networking giant 3Com, created its own version of the program last year, spearheaded by the original security manager, David Endler, who founded iDefense's program. Security researchers have even attempted to auction off vulnerability information on eBay, only to have the bidding stopped by the online auctioneer.

Vendors are better off knowing about vulnerabilities ahead of public disclosure, even if the information comes from a third-party that bought the information, Sutton said.

"The only economic model that does not make sense to me is the vendor's," Sutton said. "They get to know about a vulnerabilities ahead of time, but they are unwilling to pay for them."

Of course, not everyone agreed with the sentiment. While researchers are free to sell the information, it is still a leap to argue that doing so makes customers safer, Novell director of software engineering Crispin said.

"As a civil rights issue, selling vulnerabilities is just fine. As a keeping-the-customers safe issue, it's junk."

Software makers generally have not paid for information about software flaws, and likely will not in the future, a situation that leaves them at a disadvantage against the vulnerability buying programs, said panelist member Darius Wiles, the security alerts manager for database software maker Oracle.

"What I can give people who find vulnerabilities is a small amount of fame. iDefense can give them $10,000."

Moreover, a third-party cannot guarantee the confidentiality of the information, Wiles said, stressing that documents regarding software security issues have found their way to Oracle despite being marketed "sensitive" and "do not forward."

TippingPoint, a rival to iDefense in the vulnerability market, does not have a subscriber-only list but uses newly found vulnerabilities to protect customers using the company's intrusion prevention systems. Vulnerability researchers need to be rewarded with more than a modicum of fame for doing the right thing, TippingPoint security response manager Terri Forslof said.

"It is important that there are programs out there to provide an outlet to pay for vulnerability research," Forslof said. "This is just a different way of doing that."

One researcher, which has benefited from such programs, agreed.

Matthew Murphy, a computer information systems major at Missouri State University at Springfield, has sold a handful of flaws to iDefense over the past year, he said during the panel discussion. The 18-year-old student uses the proceeds from his research to offset the cost of tuition at the school.

Going through a third-party security firm feels safer than dealing directly with a software company, Murphy said.

"If I come to you and offer to sell you a vulnerability in your product, I am going to be cuffed and arrested," he told the representatives of software makers on the panel."

Cash-strapped researchers are not the only ones to support the program. Cash-wielding customers seem to believe that such programs may be worth investing in.

One attendee, who said he worked for a major financial firm, told the panel that approving of the vulnerability-purchasing programs has become a moot point. Now, it's time to play ball.

"I am not going to buy information about vulnerabilities, but my vendors better buy them," he said. "My dollars will follow the vendor that does."

This article originally appeared in Security Focus.

Copyright © 2006, SecurityFocus

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