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Microsoft Issues First Security Alerts For Third-Party Apps

Monthly or quarterly advisories on deck in the near-term, and Microsoft will only disclose an unfixed bug and offer workarounds if attacks hit
Microsoft yesterday officially joined the ranks of security firms that publish vulnerability discoveries they find in other vendors' products, with its first-ever security advisory disclosing two bugs in Google's Chrome browser and one in the open-source Opera browser.

Meanwhile, Microsoft didn't waver on its policy of not publicly reporting software vulnerabilities before a vendor has either patched the flaws or gone public with them: both Google and Opera had fixed them before Microsoft went public. Aside from its first Microsoft Vulnerability Research (MSVR) advisories, the software giant also spelled out Microsoft's three roles: as a vendor with vulnerabilities in its products; a finder of bugs in third party products; and as a coordinator of vulnerabilities that affect multiple vendors. Microsoft also explained its internal disclosure policy.

The no bug-bounties policy of Microsoft is still in effect, although the software giant's own researchers were offered -- but turned down -- Google's bug bounty for their finds.

The use-after free flaw in Chrome MSVR11-001 discovered by Microsoft researcher David Weston and the HTML5 bug in Chrome and Opera's implementations of the protocol MSVR11-002 discovered by Microsoft researcher Nirankush Panchbhai were the first to be issued in the Microsoft Vulnerability Research (MSVR) advisories. MSVR was technically launched in 2008, with Microsoft privately disclosing bugs to third-party vendors.

Marc Maiffret, founder and CTO at eEye, says Microsoft's move into research is commendable, the company is missing the big picture. "It is great for them to finally embrace research as a valid way of improving products," Maiffret says. "But they alone will not be able to fix the worlds vulnerabilities, they need the community, and they need to find a way to fix things."

The only way Microsoft will go public with a third-party vendor's vulnerability is if attacks hit in the wild and the vendor is unresponsive to Microsoft's attempts to contact them. "We will not publish a vulnerability ahead of a vendor fix," says Katie Moussouris, senior security strategist at Microsoft.

But if attacks are spotted exploiting that unfixed flaw, Microsoft will alert the public and issue mitigations and workarounds. "If an attack is underway, we will continue to try to contact the vendor, coordinate with them and update them that the threat landscape has changed," Moussouris says.

Microsoft is sticking to its guns and not imposing any deadlines on vendors to come up with fixes—nor on its own patches. "We will not artificially impose any kind of disclosure deadlines. We don't feel it's our place to impose a one-size-fits-all" deadline approach, she says.

eEye's Maiffret says vendors that don't have timeframes for when they will patch flaws frustrate researchers. There should be a best practices timeframe, he says, that gives vendors plenty of time to create a patch. If they don't meet that deadline, researchers are free to publish their findings without raising the ire of the vendors, he says.

Meanwhile, some researchers swear by the compensation model, where researchers who disclose bugs get a finder's fee or bounty. eEye's Maiffret argues that zero-day bugs will continue to be highly valuable in the black market if researchers don't get paid enough for their work.

Google and Mozilla are among the big-name vendors that offer bug bounties, but Microsoft long has maintained it doesn't support this approach. "Eighty percent of vulnerabilities have been reported to us privately. The majority are not dropped as zero-days," says Microsoft's Moussouris. "There are tons of ways that researchers can be compensated for their work. There are still pen-testing contracts to be had, and other ways to be directly compensated."

Moussouris says both Microsoft's Weston and Panchbhai voluntarily chose to decline the Google bug bounty compensation for their finds, although Microsoft's vulnerability disclosure doesn't specifically address the issue for Microsoft's own researchers. Like all employees, however, they are subject to "moonlighting" policies, she notes.

Look for a quarterly or monthly cycle of MSVR advisories from Microsoft, she says. "We have a backlog of disclosures," Moussouris says.

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