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White House to world: We don't hoard IT security vulnerabilities

Or if we do, it's only in the national interest

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Backing up the NSA's claim that it was caught by surprise by the Heartbleed OpenSSL bug, the White House has tried to explain the rules under which it allows agencies to hoard security vulnerabilities.

In this White House blog post, cybersecurity coordinator Michael Daniel says leaving a huge number of vulnerabilities undisclosed would not be in America's national interest: “Building up a huge stockpile of undisclosed vulnerabilities while leaving the Internet vulnerable and the American people unprotected would not be in our national security interest,” he writes.

If you take that as meaning the White House is going to tell the NSA to disclose vulnerabilities it finds, however, think again. The post pirouettes immediately to defending vulnerability-hoarding: “that is not the same as arguing that we should completely forgo this tool [exploiting vulnerabilities rather than disclosing them – The Register] as a way to conduct intelligence collection”.

So the White House says it has established guidelines for when vulnerability-hoarding is okay: not “hard and fast” rules, Daniel writes, but considerations that apply if an agency asks to keep a vulnerability secret.

These include how widespread a vuln might be in critical infrastructure systems; how much risk exists [without noting who bears the risk] if the vulnerability is unpatched; how much harm “an adversary” could do with knowledge of a vulnerability; whether “we” would know if someone else was exploiting the vulnerability; the value of the intelligence that might be obtained exploiting the vulnerability; whether US agencies might have the chance to exploit the bug before disclosing it; the likelihood that someone else might discover the same vulnerability; and whether or not a vulnerability could be patched or mitigated.

In other words, the post seems to tell us that the White House will only hoard useful vulnerabilities that they can exploit without being caught, for as long as they think it won't be noticed by black-hats.

Don't you feel better for knowing that? ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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