Researchers: Flaw auctions would improve security
The auction may have set a record price for a highlighter pen and an 8-by-11-inch sheet of paper.
The last reported bid before the listing was deleted without ceremony was $1,200. The price might seem excessive, but the value lay in what some researchers believed was on the paper: Information about an unpatched vulnerability in Microsoft Excel.
This week's understated auction represented the second attempt of an anonymous security researcher to make money from a vulnerability in Microsoft's spreadsheet application, only to be shut down by online auction company eBay within 48 hours. Last week, the seller tried the direct approach - stating that the item for sale was information about the vulnerability - before being shut down for "encouraging illegal activity".
"The idea was to estimate a market value for a major vulnerability and to see who would be interested to obtain such information," said the seller, who used the handle "fearwall" in the initial auction and was contacted by SecurityFocus through eBay's email service. "The listing clearly stated that the information would be delivered to researchers only."
This week, the seller only mentioned the vulnerability briefly in the auction description and limited the sale to a highlighter and a "letter-sized frameable poster promoting the importance of information security."
"The poster also contains the website address of a respectable security research organization that helped me to investigate the vulnerability and my personal -mail address," stated the description of the auction posted by "smk778". The person initially contacted by SecurityFocus, "fearwall," confirmed that he was the person who posted the second auction. eBay also confirmed the connection.
Several security experts believed the auction to be an indirect attempt to sell the vulnerability. However, "fearwall" stressed that he did not intend to sell information on the vulnerability, only memorabilia.
"The vulnerability was not a part of the second auction," he said.
By late Tuesday, eBay suspended bidding and deleted the listing, citing violations of policies regarding charity donations and against circumventing fees. The suspension was not because of the seller's previous auction, said Catherine England, a spokeswoman for eBay.</ p>
"When listings are reviewed, they are considered on the basis of their own merits, so a variety of factors come into play," said Catherine England, a spokeswoman for eBay. "If the listing is determined (by eBay) to encourage illegal activity or violate copyright then it would be pulled from the site. A listing that violates any of our policies would be pulled."
The twin auctions have piqued interest among security researchers about the effect that free-market vulnerability sales could have on software security. While the idea of selling vulnerability research has gained more traction amongst the security industry and research communities, buying flaw information is still a controversial practice. Currently, two companies actively encourage such sales: VeriSign's iDefense and 3Com's TippingPoint. Both companies have created initiatives aimed at procuring original vulnerability research from independent flaw finders.
Software makers tend to frown upon such tactics because the exposure of vulnerabilities can significantly undermine trust in their product and even their stock evaluations. Microsoft typically will criticize researchers who publicly disclose flaws before giving the company adequate time, typically at least 30 days and frequently many months, to fix the problem. The software giant contends that responsible disclosure precludes vulnerability auctions.
"The first concern is customers' safety," Microsoft said in a statement sent to SecurityFocus. "That is why Microsoft continues to encourage responsible disclosure of vulnerabilities; because it minimizes the risk to computer users. We believe the commonly accepted practice of reporting vulnerabilities directly to a vendor serves everyone's best interests."
Yet, a free-market system allowing researchers to sell confirmed vulnerabilities to all comers would likely help software become more secure, said Greg Hoglund, a security researcher and CEO of reverse engineering firm HB Gary. Such auctions would be a significant incentive for Microsoft and other companies to put more money into security, he said.
"If you actually have bad guys posting stuff and bad guys buying stuff, then that's really going to raise the awareness of Microsoft or whoever," Hoglund said. "It turns up the heat under the vendor to put even more effort behind their software security."
Turning to auctions to maximize a security researcher's profits and fairly value security research is not a new idea, Hoglund said. Two years ago, he had reserved the domain "zerobay.com" and intended to create an auction site, but worries over liability caused him to scuttle the plan a few days before the site went live, he said.
The security researcher "fearwall" who initially attempted to sell the information about the bug in Microsoft Excel believes such auctions would create additional market forces to support more secure software.
"A publicly auctioned vulnerability would create a healthy competition between the owner of the application and (third-party security) companies," he said.
Arguments that cybercriminals would be able to use such a marketplace to improve their attack software are unfounded, he added.
"eBay is not a black market where anyone can buy and sell the information and stay anonymous," he said. "You can buy a weapon at the store or on the street and use it to commit a crime or to protect yourself. What matters is that you are less likely to commit a crime when you buy it at the store."
Researchers and software makers would also benefit from such a marketplace, said David Aitel, principal researcher and president of security consulting firm Immunity. Auctions would likely result in better pay for independent vulnerability researchers and might actually be cheaper in the long run for software makers, he said.
"It is cheaper to pay a researcher for a flaw than to invest in an extensive audit of a product," Aitel said. "That $1,200 is less than a day of consulting--it's a bargain basement deal as far as (the software vendors) are concerned."
Aitel placed a bid on the auction for the highlighter and one-page document, not to gain information about a vulnerability, but to procure a memorable artifact of the vulnerability disclosure debate, he said.
"You are buying into the mystique," Aitel said.
At present, the only options for security researchers looking to sell flaws are to either contact the vendor directly in exchange for an acknowledgment in the eventual disclosure of the flaw or to participate in one of two programs. The iDefense Vulnerability Contributor Program pays anywhere between $100 to $1,000 for a flaw depending on the severity and the popularity of the software program, with quarterly bonuses for prolific flaw finders and loyalty. The 3Com Zero Day Initiative does not disclose its rates for vulnerabilities but the program also rewards prolific submissions and loyalty.
The economy could evolve from a few companies with such programs to a third-party auction system, said David Endler, director of security research for 3Com's TippingPoint.
"There is an increase of awareness among security vendors in the value of leveraging independent security researchers, as is evident in the creation of multiple public and private vulnerability reward programs," he said. "While we think an unmoderated vulnerability auction could have negative repercussions, competition combined with market maturation, may open the doors for an independent, trusted third-party vulnerability auction house."
However, the requirements for such a business would be steep, he said. Just as Sotheby's attests to the authenticity of historic artifacts in its auctions, a vulnerability auction house would have to have a way to vouch for the accuracy of a researcher's claims. Furthermore, to prevent illegal use of the information, the service would have to have an agreement with the buyer regarding use of the vulnerability, Endler said. Finally, the software vendor in whose product the vulnerability resides should have right of first refusal, he said.
Those requisites may never be satisfied, nor do they have to be, said HB Gary's Hoglund.
"The fact is that bad guys will get their hands on exploit material regardless of whether there is an auction house," he said. "Further more, if people see exploit research being sold for a nice amount of money, then it will get researchers interested in pounding on these products again and finding more bugs."
To Hoglund, a free market for vulnerabilities means more pressure for secure software.
"In no model does the security of the software itself go down, it only goes up," he said.
CORRECTION: The story gave too much credence to the belief of security researchers that the second eBay auction would have also resulted in the sale of vulnerability information. "fearwall" has denied that information on the vulnerability would have been delivered to the winner of the second auction.
This article was originally published at at SecurityFocus