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Daily flaws ratchet up debate

To disclose or not to disclose...

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While the Month of Browser Bugs project has come under criticism, the objections of the black hat community underscore why it is important. Making the vulnerabilities known will prompt software developers and defenders to respond to threats and secure their systems, said Peter Swire, a professor at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law.

"The attackers probably know about the vulnerabilities, the defenders have not patched pervasively, so disclosure will tend to help the defenders," Swire said.

In a paper published in 2004, Swire argued that, while there are cases where obscurity can help security, that's not the case for internet-connected computers. After informing the software maker and giving them time to patch the problem, releasing the information helps overall security, he said.

"In many cyber applications, it makes sense to use openness," Swire said. "The factors tilt towards openness because the attackers can attack repeatedly, learn from the attacks and tell people about the attack. It is different from many real world applications where they can get the plans for the banks and that will help them with the attack because they know where to step to avoid the alarm sensors."

Others have taken the issue of disclosure as an incentive to secure systems to a more extreme degree. In a law note published in the Harvard Law Review (PDF) last month, recent graduate Jonathan Lin argued that even acts of cybercrime that do not cause major damage should be considered a benefit because it helps secure the internet, similar to disclosure.

"I think there should be a more nuanced approach to how we measure what are the most damaging attacks," said Jonathan Lin, a recent graduate from Harvard University's School of Law and the author of the note.

Focusing on the online vandals that do minor damage to systems through attacks that highlight security risks may not be the best use of government resources, he said. The result of such prosecution could be a far less secure internet, he argued.

"It is really difficult for the US government to protect itself from attacks that span the globe," he said. "So the centralised response of prosecution is not going to be very effective - it feels almost like a lost cause. We have to do something about it, but I feel that the effort is focused on the wrong threat."

Looked at from an economic perspective, the enhanced security that comes from disclosure - and some minor cybercrimes - is known as a positive externality, a beneficial effect on the consumer from an event in which they did not participate, said Eric Goldman, director of the High-Technology Law Institute at Santa Clara University's School of Law.

While online attackers target vulnerable software applications, when the software maker offers a program patch to close the security hole, the consumer benefits.

However, the flip side of the effect - so-called negative externalities - typically outweigh the positive for acts such as cybercrime, Goldman said.

"There is no real wealth created by the investments in security, it is just a cost of everything we do in our lives," said. "When the (Harvard) article argues that we create a social benefit, it could also be argued that the person is creating a bunch of dead-weight losses that really don't benefit society."

Certainly, software makers, who now have to run multiple data-fuzzing tools against their software, may feel that way. The dramatic daily release of bugs during July is a warning that the companies need to use data-fuzzing tools to find application flaws before attackers find the weaknesses first. The number of exploits of previously unknown flaws - called zero-day exploits - detected by security firms has also, </a href="http://www.securityfocus.com/brief/231" target="_blank">at least anecdotally, increased dramatically over the last year.

And these tend not to be flaws that can easily be found by researchers - fuzzer-found flaws tend to be somewhat obscure, Moore said.

"These weren't well-understood bugs," he said. "They are really strange issues that it is really hard to understand, even after the fact. For example, one ActiveX bug requires 10 different variables be set."

Microsoft has made fuzzing part of its Software Development Lifecycle and runs the tools, not just against browsers, but its other software as well, a spokesperson said.

While Moore has grown somewhat tired of fuzzing, he is not done quite yet. A yet-unreleased data-fuzzing tool has found a number of other vulnerabilities in the current version of Internet Explorer, he said. He has not released information on those issues, except to Microsoft, but plans to create a tool so that system administrators can eventually check their systems for the flaws.

CORRECTION: The article's discussion of Peter Swire's paper and position was clarified to stress that he believes proper disclosure involves first notifying the vendor, giving them time to fix the issue and then releasing vulnerability information.

This article originally appeared in Security Focus.

Copyright © 2006, SecurityFocus

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