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Mozilla: security researchers have too much power

Time ain't on their side

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Mozilla's security chief has stepped into the debate about the disclosure of security bugs by saying that software developers are at the mercy of bug hunters.

Mozilla security chief Window Snyder called on security researchers to follow responsible disclosure guidelines, giving vendors a reasonable amount of time to fix bugs before making them public. As things stand, bug hunters have the whip hand, she argued.

"The researcher has all the power," Snyder said, News.com reports. "They control when they disclose it, and they control the idea whether or not the vendor responds in time...I would appreciate 30 days, but I will take what I can get."

The Mozilla security chief conceded that suppliers have to be more proactive about problems highlighted to them. "Vendors have a real responsibility to respond to what's reported to them," she said.

Full disclosure

Snyder made her comments during a panel discussion at the ShmooCon hacker conference in Washington last week. The debate about the responsible disclosure of security bugs has raged in the security industry for years, without any sign of a resolution. Vendors sometimes sit on security bugs that might be too complicated or costly to fix, a move that understandably frustrates security researchers.

To push vendors into releasing a patch, researchers sometimes publish details of security flaws (along with proof of concept demos to illustrate their concerns) before a vendor-supplied fix is available. Some publish this information before notifying a vendor, something that normally occurs when there's a history of antagonism between the two sides.

The argument for this type of "full disclosure" is that if security researchers have discovered a bug so might have hackers. Disclosure concentrates the minds of vendors towards producing an early fix, which benefits end users (and might damage a vendor's reputation). Vendors counter argue that full disclosure highlights flaws that hackers might not have discovered, leaving users at risk. They also sometimes complain about being "ambushed" by such moves.

Security researchers who follow responsible disclosure often complain of a lack of timely response from a vendor, the time it takes to produce a fix, or where suppliers issue security notices for security bugs without giving credit to researchers who discovered problems.

Apple has recently come under fire over its alleged attempts to discredit security researchers David Maynor and Jon "Johnny Cache" Ellch over their work on wireless security vulnerabilities, for example.

The time Oracle takes to release security patches has also been a frequent topic of criticism from some database security researchers.

Researchers who abide by "responsible disclosure" guidelines are sometimes frustrated by a lack of response from software makers. Another frequent point of criticism is the time it takes for a fix to be released and for the researcher to get credit in a security alert.

Bug bounties

A number of security firms are trying to get an edge over their rivals by paying independent security researchers for bugs they find, defences against which are added to their security products and notification services, thereby boosting their appeal. The approach was first widely applied by iDefense but has since been taken up by other firms including Immunity and TippingPoint.

Rohit Dhamankar, manager of security research at TippingPoint, said the approach is not without its problems. TippingPoint was recently sued by a unnamed supplier of web portal software. Chris Wysopal, CTO and founder of security review firm Veracode, said such legal threats are commonplace. ®

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