Vulnerabilities / Threats
12/1/2011
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More Vendors Reacting Poorly To Disclosure

From Charlie Miller's latest attack on Apple's App Store to the outing of Carrier IQ, companies seem to be taking a step back and punishing researchers who disclose vulnerabilities

Since 2008, security researcher Charlier Miller has scrutinized Apple products and found numerous vulnerabilities -- attention that the company has endured with equanimity, if not good grace. In early November, however, the tenuous relationship broke down.

Miller discovered a weakness in the iOS operating system that could allow a seemingly benign app to run malicious, unsigned code. The researcher decided to exploit the issue as well, building an application that passed Apple's checks to land in the App Store. Miller then made a video showing that he could take control of the phone without the user's knowledge.

"This is code that was not reviewed and could have done anything. It gets around the processes built into the App Store," he said in the video demonstration.

Apple's validation of applications headed to the App Store is a key component of the security of the iOS. The incident embarrassed the company, and Apple quickly took it out on Miller, banning him from the developer program -- and access to the App Store and developer resources -- for at least a year. Apple terminated the relationship because Miller broke his promise not to "commit any act intended to interfere with the Apple Software or related services," the company stated in a letter to the researcher.

"First they give researchers access to developer programs ... then they kick them out -- for doing research. Me angry," Miller posted on Twitter on Nov. 7. Miller, a principal consultant with security and compliance firm Accuvant, is no longer allowed to discuss the incident with press.

The debate about the best way to reveal software security flaws is more than two decades old. While the relationship between researchers and the software vendors whose product they investigate has always been uneasy, the tide appears to be taking a turn against researchers in 2011. Like Apple, companies once again are using tough tactics to take on researchers who point out vulnerabilities in their flaws.

"It seems the Grand Bargain is being breached," says Bruce Schneier, a noted security expert and chief security technology officer at British Telecom. "The retaliatory action by Apple is a good example."

The recent drama between Carrier IQ and security researcher Trevor Eckhart is another example. Eckhart's investigation spotlighted the fact that 141 million smartphones have quietly carried Carrier IQ's software to track phone performance as well as customer usage patterns. The software essentially represents a rootkit, allowing carriers -- and likely government agencies -- to access information about consumers' locations and use of phones.

Carrier IQ, unprepared for the intense media scrutiny following the revelations, took legal action against Eckhart, sending the researcher a cease-and-desist notice. After the Electronic Frontier Foundation agreed to represent Eckhart, however, the company backed off.

"As of today, we are withdrawing our cease and desist letter to Mr. Trevor Eckhart," the company stated. "We have reached out to Mr. Eckhart and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) to apologize."

Many of the companies affected by recent research are relatively new targets for researchers. The hardening of PC operating systems and applications has caused many researchers to focus on other platforms, such as medical devices, mobile phones, and even insulin pumps. The makers of those devices do not have the experience to deal with researchers as in the past.

"The full disclosure world takes a while to get use to," BT's Schneier says.

Such companies need to learn quickly that cultivating good relations with security researchers is the best way to weed out vulnerabilities from their systems. Microsoft took more than decade to develop good relations with researchers, but it's efforts have paid off. In 2011, the number of vulnerabilities publicly announced before Microsoft patched the underlying issue shrank for the third year in a row.

"Security researchers play an important role in helping Microsoft protect its customers and improve its products, as they offer unique expertise and insight," Jerry Bryant, group manager for Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing initiative, said in a statement.

Most recently, the company announced its BlueHat Prize for innovative defensive technologies in August and will award $200,000 to the best runtime mitigation technology.

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