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Microsoft to banish 'responsible' from disclosure debate

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Microsoft has submitted a proposal aimed at quelling one of the oldest debates in security circles: retiring the use of the term “responsible disclosure”.

The software maker wants to replace the term with the less pejorative phrase “coordinated vulnerability disclosure.” The hope is that software makers and researchers can put aside decade-old differences about the best way to handle critical defects so that end users are best protected.

“We don't want an emotionally laden term clouding the debate, and that's definitely gotten in the way of a lot of good discussions between like-minded people in security,” said Katie Moussouris, senior security strategist in the Microsoft Security Response Center. “We're really trying to reach out across the disclosure dividing lines and find the common ground where we all are. We all want to protect customers and users.”

The modest proposal comes a month after the public disclosure of an unpatched vulnerability took the debate to new highs. On June 9, Researcher Tavis Ormandy dropped detailed information about a critical bug in older versions of Windows that allowed attackers to take full control of a PC by luring its user to a booby-trapped website. Ormandy said he had notified Microsoft of the vulnerability just five days earlier, on a Saturday, and decided to take his advisory public when Microsoft didn't commit to fixing the flaw within two months.

Moussouris told The Register the company was unable to give Ormandy a timeline until it had finished investigating the bug, which resides in the Help Center of Windows XP and Server 2003 and was fixed earlier this month. Ormandy didn't respond to a request to comment by time of publication. Within days of the disclosure, reports began circulating that the previously undocumented flaw was being exploited by attackers.

Some people in security circles, including those at Microsoft, responded by noting that Ormandy worked for Google, and criticized him for releasing the details before Microsoft had a chance to fix the vulnerability, as the tenets of responsible disclosure hold.

On Tuesday, this Google blog post, which was co-written by Ormandy, criticized the term.

“The important implication of referring to this process as 'responsible' is that researchers who do not comply are seen as behaving improperly,” the post stated. “However, the inverse situation is often true: it can be irresponsible to permit a flaw to remain live for such an extended period of time.”

In Ormandy's post on the Full-disclosure forum — which he said represented his private opinion — he went further.

“This is another example of the problems with bug secrecy (or in PR speak, 'responsible disclosure'),” he wrote. “Those of us who work hard to keep networks safe are forced to work in isolation without the open collaboration with our peers that we need, especially in complex cases like this, where creative thinking and input from experts in multiple disciplines is required to join the dots.”

Moussouris said the move to retire the term started long before the most recent firestorm ignited and noted that an International Standards Organization committee in April unanimously voted to drop the word “responsible” from its discussion on vulnerability reporting. Indeed, Steve Christey, who helped release the 'Responsible Disclosure' draft for the Internet Engineering Task Force in 2002, said the term has outlived its usefulness.

“I fully support an active push for more objective terminology within the industry,” he told El Reg. “This may help keep the long-running debate more focused on results instead of name-calling.”

In essence, coordinated vulnerability disclosure would work much like responsible disclosure: Researchers would be encouraged to report security bugs to the responsible software maker or other trusted organization and agree to keep all details private until a mutually agreed-upon time. But in the event the two sides don't see eye to eye, they would continue talking. In the event the finder decides to make the vulnerability public, he would communicate those plans to the software maker ahead of time.

“Even if you don't share disclosure philosophies with us — for example, if you're a proponent of full disclosure — we still want to talk to you,” Moussouris said. “Even if you believe in full disclosure, it is definitely worth it to come to us and let us know. Anything that helps us get a head start against attackers is what we want.”

More about Microsoft's proposal is here and here. ®

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