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Rift Widens Over Bug Disclosure

Researchers in snipe-fest over propriety of bug disclosure initiatives

There's a growing rift among the research community over whether the Month-of-Bugs initiatives are helping security or hurting it. (See Buggin' Out? and Apple Bug Bites OS X, Windows.)

There's even now a little pushback from one researcher to the current Month of Apple Bugs (MOAB): Landon Fuller, a former engineer for Apple and currently with Three Rings, an online gaming developer, is answering each MOAB bug with a fix of his own.

This dueling banjos of bug reports and fixes is an example of how researchers aren't all on the same page when it comes to how new vulnerabilities get disclosed. There's always been a clear line between the bad guys and the good, and the underlying argument is not really new -- vendors have traditionally maintained a "responsible disclosure" stance. But now some of the good-guy researchers are more openly questioning just what constitutes proper disclosure of bugs and exploits. And the MOAB has become the lightning rod for the debate.

At the heart of the dispute is whether the risk of releasing an unpatched bug or exploit is worth the potential improvements in long-term security. The point of the MOAB project, according to its founders, is to release bugs and exploits without notifying the vendor.

"I think there's a growing consensus that these 'month of XXX' things are hurting way more than they're helping," says Thomas Ptacek, a researcher with Matasano Security. Ptacek says most researchers have had to hold back a vulnerability find for months, "because of a recalcitrant vendor."

But for other researchers, there's more of a grey area in the disclosure argument. RSnake, a self-described "greyhat" hacker who releases discovered vulnerablities, and does a little subversive work, says the month-of-bugs projects hasn't run its course. "It definitely has legs, but it's for the greyhat folks who haven't yet been burnt" by disclosures, he says.

Greyhats, he explains, "may do good, but they also do bad for either profit or because they think it serves a greater good," says RSnake, who works via the ha.ckers.org and sla.ckers.org groups he founded. "They don't fit in either the good or bad category exactly."

RSnake says there are two types of disclosures, one that's difficult to exploit and/or won't cause much damage, such as a cross-site scripting flaw, and another that's easy to exploit or could do lots of damage or is hard to patch, such as zero-day browser exploits that give an attacker higher privileges, or some Oracle exploits.

"I opt for corporate [vendor] disclosure very rarely. The only time I think it is better for consumers to not know they are vulnerable before companies do is if the patch is very simple but the damage would be huge if released," he says, such as with OS bugs. "Frankly, I am tired of how companies deal with disclosure," says RSnake, who this summer experienced the fallout of an XSS flaw on Google's site he reported via ha.ckers.org.

Other researchers say releasing a bug before a vendor can respond should be the exception, not the rule.

"I've never found it to be a good thing to release bugs or exploits without giving a vendor a chance to patch it and do the right thing," says Marc Maiffret, CTO and chief hacking officer at eEye Digital Security. "There are rare exceptions where if a vendor is completely lacking any care for doing the right thing that you might need to release a bug without a patch -- to make the vendor pay attention and do something."

Matasano's Ptacek worries the month of bugs approach will hurt the credibility of researchers with vendors. "The most important problem researchers have is being ptaken seriously by vendors," he says. "Before the 'MOXB' thing, the story could credibly be, 'vendors are shipping software that isn't safe to deploy.' Now the story is, 'researchers are behaving irresponsibly.' How can they [the MOAB creators] not see that this is a win for the vendors?"

But all of the debate hasn't deterred researcher LMH, who heads up the MOAB research project and also ran the Month of Kernel Bugs project in November. The split among researchers over disclosure, he says, has to do with those who have consulting deals with vendors. "If you look closely at the parties that do such 'responsible disclosure,' you'll be able to draw a red line which separates those who [make] a living out of it, and those who stay on the top, far above from the business boundaries," he says.

eEye's Maiffret, meanwhile, says plenty of researchers operate based on morals, not money. "The reality is you can still be good to business while also having ethics in handling vulnerabilities," he says. "There are no laws one way or another, and debating people's morals seems to never really go anywhere for anyone."

HD Moore, who created the first of these projects, the popular Month of Browser Bugs, admits the downside to the Month of Bugs-style disclosure is vendors don't get a headstart on patching. But the approach has more upsides, according to Moore.

"The awareness piece is still there and it's an effective way of drawing attention to a class of vulnerabilities," he says, noting that whether to disclose an unpatched or unknown bug or exploit is more of a case-by-case situation. "Apple is still getting free security research performed on their products. It's an expensive service if you have to pay for it," he notes.

— Kelly Jackson Higgins, Senior Editor, Dark Reading

  • eEye Digital Security
  • Matasano Security LLC

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