Take White Hats Seriously to Staunch the Flow of Zero-Days

Zero-day vulnerabilities are serious, and on the rise. And IT-security teams make the problem worse when they fail to respond, or respond poorly, to responsible vulnerability disclosures.

Joe Stanganelli, Attorney & Marketer

February 19, 2019

5 Min Read

When it comes to the rising zero-day threat, IT-security organizations may have no one to blame but themselves and their poor attitudes toward data stewardship.

Zero-day vulnerabilities and the exploits thereof are trending upward. Earlier this month, for instance, both Microsoft and Apple had to issue patches on multiple respective zero-day vulnerabilities that were reportedly already being actively exploited in the wild. Meanwhile, digital-transformation technologies like IoT and AI are only exacerbating the problem.

But if you're a white-hat researcher who finds and responsibly reports a zero-day vulnerability, good luck getting the company to acknowledge it.

The question for disclosure closure
Last month, 14-year-old Grant Thompson accidentally discovereda bug in Apple's Group FaceTime feature in iOS 12.1 and MacOS Mojave. The flaw allowed a caller to turn someone else's iPhone into a listening device without the other party having to answer a call. Thompson's mother -- an attorney -- emailed Apple, posted several times to social media, and faxed Apple a letter on her law firm's letterhead. It was not until her posts went viral and major news outlets picked up the story that Apple began to address the issue on January 30, about a week and a half after the fact.

Thompson and his mother aren't the first to endure such endemic vulnerability-disclosure absurdism. Some yet more notorious examples:

  • Starting in 2017, security researcher Dylan Houlihan repeatedly attempted to get Panera Bread to acknowledge and address a website data leak exposing millions of customers' data. (It took an introduction from a mutual contact to even get in touch with Panera's Director of Inofrmation Security, who took him for a scammer at first.) After about eight months of fruitless persistence, Houlihan finally gave the information to renowned cybersecurity journalist Brian Krebs -- who not only brought national attention to the story, but also discovered that the data leak impacted tens of millions of people than originally thought. (See: Massive Data Breaches & Data Leak Hit Retail Industry in 1-2-3 Punch.)

  • In 2016, Asus got slapped with an FTC consent order subjecting it to, inter alia, 20 years' worth of audits as fallout from "AsusGate" -- when the company failed to respond appropriately to a security researcher's multiple emails from 2013 attempting to get it to address major security flaws in its routers.

  • Also in 2013, Palestinian researcher Khalil Shreateh attempted to report to Facebook multiple times a bug that would allow any user to post to any other user's timeline without the requisite permissions. After not being taken seriously (he was flat-out told "this is not a bug"), Shreateh was driven to post to CEO Mark Zuckerberg's wall a missive explaining his discovery. Only then did Facebook's security team pay heed -- and then refused to apply its bug-bounty program to Shreateh because Shreateh had technically violated Facebook's "white-hats only" policy by posting to Zuckerberg's wall. (Outraged members of the security community raised a $10,000 fund for Shreateh.

Perverse incentives
At best, companies' dismissive behavior and responses (or non-responses, as the case may be) to vulnerability disclosures not only disincentivizes researchers from doing the research and making the disclosures to these companies. At worst, it may turn a hacker's hat from white to gray or even black, according to Chris Richter, an advisor to cybersecurity startups. After all, if an IT-security team won't listen, the NSA or a dark-web forum might.

"That is a huge business on the dark web -- finding zero-day vulnerabilities, not revealing them to the vendor, and selling them to the highest bidder," says Richter. "[Or] they shop it to foreign governments that want to make use of it."

An iPhone vulnerability, for example, can literally fetch millions of dollars -- and Richter points out that gray- and black-market bounties are rising.

There's only so much that can be done about bad corporate culture; sometimes this escalates to wilful ignorance. IT-security departments know that their knowledge of a possible data compromise may trigger a variety of time-sensitive compliance requirements, intense political pressure, and/or the possibility of fines and other unfavorable enforcement actions -- even if they competently handle their incident response (particularly these days if GDPR applies). (See: GDPR Fines: Some Bark, Little Bite.) Even when communications-service providers (CSPs) detect another company's breach and so alert it, the response may be a curt "Thank you for letting us know; don't ever call us again." (See: Four Enterprise Security Lessons From Maury.)

But for companies like Apple and Panera, the solution begins with making it easy to send disclosures to a properly trained and empowered human who will read and act on them. Katie Moussouris, CEO of Luta Security, reports finding that only 6% of the Forbes Global 2000 offers dedicated security-reporting channels.

"Make this process obviously distinct from the 'Hi I think my account is hacked' customer-support process," urges Houlihan. "You do not need to offer a bug bounty or a reward. Just offering a way to allow people to easily contact you with confidence would go a long way."

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— Joe Stanganelli is managing director at research and consulting firm Blackwood King LC. In addition to being an attorney and consultant, he has spent several years analyzing and writing about business and technology trends. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeStanganelli.


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