[ISN] Are vulnerable times responsible times?
isn at c4i.org
Thu Mar 3 02:51:04 EST 2005
By Patrick Gray
March 02 2005
Security professionals say they're making computing safer, but are
they doing more harm than good? Patrick Gray talks to independent
security researchers, a controversial operator and Microsoft's chief
security engineer to find out.
The internet is one big, bad neighbourhood. Try connecting a freshly
loaded Windows system - no patches - to the internet. How long would
it last? 10 seconds? Maybe 20?
Then imagine a nightmare scenario. Your computer, with all patches
loaded, is attacked by a hacker who possesses vulnerability
information not in the public domain. They know a way in and there's
no way to stop them; no patch for the security hole because your
software supplier doesn't know it exists.
This is why software companies want security bug catchers to tell them
when they find a flaw. They can write a patch and distribute it to
customers before malicious hackers can attack systems through the
weakness. But one such researcher, Dave Aitel, doesn't want to do
Aitel is a man with a reputation. In private, many security
researchers say he's unethical; a rogue operator placing computer
users across the globe at risk. Others say he's a gun researcher,
protecting his clients in an era of irresponsible security practices
among large software companies.
Aitel's company, Immunity Inc, raised more than a few eyebrows in
January when it released details of a security vulnerability in
Apple's operating system software to the public without giving the
software company prior notification. The result? Apple customers were
aware of a security flaw in their software, and had no way to fix it.
But the very same vulnerability details were shared with Immunity's
clients as far back as June, 2004. Why?
Aitel explained: "Immunity's policy on vulnerability information does
not include vendor notification."
Aitel has a habit of answering the questions he wishes you'd asked,
not the ones that you actually did.
But he offers this: the way he sees it, he's providing his customers
with information about vulnerabilities in greater detail than the
vendors, and that's a service worth paying for.
$100,000 will get you into Aitel's Vulnerability Sharing Club; $50,000
for smaller companies. Any company that joins must sign a
non-disclosure agreement, so information about vulnerabilities in
popular software doesn't fall into the wrong hands.
Needless to say, some vendors are less than impressed. George
Stathakopoulos, Microsoft's chief security engineer, wouldn't talk
about any specific company, but says responsible vulnerability
disclosure is vital.
"Any individual or organisation that behaves in a way that potentially
puts... customers at risk is a huge concern," he says. "We continue to
urge security researchers to disclose vulnerability information
responsibly and allow customers time to deploy updates so they do not
aid criminals in their attempt to take advantage of software
Greg Shipley, chief technology officer of Chicago-based security
outfit Neohapsis, holds back judgement but says the existence of
private vulnerability sharing clubs like Aitel's raise some serious
"When you start talking about advanced release times, publishing
exploit code, and introducing a mercenary angle to what is
essentially... a public quality assurance process, you start entering
some really murky waters," he says.
The trade in information that allows the buyer to easily penetrate
computer networks is dangerous, Shipley argues. "If it simply boils
down to the highest bidder, we're in for some real problems."
"If anyone with a few dollars can afford to 'buy into' such an
information ring and get access to tools that blow past most corporate
defences, what's to stop some truly malicious folks from using that
information for truly evil purposes?" Shipley asks.
"Zero-day", or unpublished security vulnerabilities are becoming the
"tactical nukes" of cyberspace, Shipley argues; the Holy Grail. He
doesn't want to see them falling into the wrong hands.
But Ken Pfeil, chief security officer at Capital IQ, a web-based
provider of financial data services, isn't alarmed. Services offered
by companies like Immunity are ethical, "as long as they hold the
information to themselves and sign the members to a non-disclosure
agreement". Still, he does acknowledge the sensitive information may
"leak", but that's not Aitel's fault, he says. Vulnerability
information leaks have sprung from other sources, like the Carnegie
Mellon University-based research outfit CERT, which receives US
"No one holds CERT accountable when a member leaks information, so why
would this be any different?" Pfeil asks.
Perhaps some in the security industry are merely annoyed Aitel has the
gumption to turn vulnerabilities into cash in such a controversial
way. Having access to vulnerability information if you're a researcher
seems to be a lesser sin in the eyes of many. It's ironic, considering
some prominent researchers have been known to dabble in illegal
Pfeil has used Aitel's services in the past, and is a satisfied
customer. "I hired him to do a code review at our company last year.
He did a very good job," he says.
While researching any article about Immunity Inc, one thing became
very clear: Aitel is popular. Even some of his biggest critics say
he's funny and affable; one former colleague describes him as "hard
not to like".
Aitel spent six years working with the National Security Agency in the
US before moving to the private sector. Ron Gula, the creator of
Dragon IDS and co-founder of Tenable security in the US, also worked
for the NSA. Gula, a competitor of sorts to Aitel, shies away from
vulnerability research. It's expensive, time consuming and not worth
the hassle, he says.
But Gula has also benefited financially from finding vulnerabilities
in software inadvertently, simply through the publicity. He knows
finding bugs pays the bills, even when disclosure is handled
differently. It's proof that the rational rules of commerce, and
perhaps ethics as a knock-on effect, don't apply in the bug hunting
"The few vulnerabilities we've inadvertently discovered got Tenable on
CNN and sent a lot of business our way," Gula says.
Even when a vulnerability was discovered in Dragon IDS, Gula said the
negative publicity actually helped boost sales. "When Dragon first
started, there was a lame exploit for it. This sent a lot of business
my way... [people] conclude if it is new and worth hacking, it must be
There is a demand for detailed information about security
vulnerabilities out there, a market vacuum, and Aitel's moved to fill
"Software customers should require vendors to provide full, current,
and accurate disclosure of every security vulnerability they know
about, to their customers," he says.
"While the open source community generally follows this policy, closed
source vendors often do not. Educated customers, particularly in the
financial community, are now requiring independent third party
assessments of software before they purchase it, and are beginning to
push back on software vendors with regards to the information they get
from them about vulnerabilities."
But Microsoft's Stathakopoulos says his company doesn't want to bury
vulnerability information, it just wants to slow down its release.
"What worries me is the increase in releasing proof of concept code,"
he says. "I would like to see the industry self-regulating and
delaying the release of POC for at least 90 days."
Proof of concept code exploits a security vulnerability, but doesn't
grant access to a vulnerable machine; it's a test. However, armed with
a basic POC anyone with some basic programming skills can alter the
code and turn it into a fully fledged exploit.
Some see the release of POC as a way to force software vendors to
produce working fixes. If millions of users have the ability to test a
security patch with the POC, then the vendor had better make it a good
If there's one thing Stathakopoulos is getting very sick of, it's
having to drop everything - including holidays or social plans - when
a security researcher slaps an undisclosed vulnerability in a
Microsoft product onto a public mailing list. "You have to leave
whatever you doing to go to work and start the process of releasing a
security update," he says.
What if software vendors started paying bug-finders for information
about security flaws: would this help or hinder? Shipley has doubts.
"There's a fine line between fiscally compensating one for their work,
and creating a framework for extortion possibilities," he says. "It's
that line that I worry about."
But Aitel notes it's not the "security community" that actually finds
most of the bugs. "Vendors typically do pay a fee to people who find
bugs in their software; they call that fee their 'salary'," he quips.
"Most people finding bugs in a vendor's software are QA (Quality
Assurance) engineers who work for the vendor." The public never knows
about those bugs because they're fixed before the product ships.
Gula agrees with Shipley. If vendors are obliged to pay for bugs, such
a scheme will amount to extortion. "There are millions of unknown
vulnerabilities and the software manufactures should not be forced to
purchase these. How much are they worth? Who sets this value?" he
So who's to blame for the current state of affairs? Vendors blame
irresponsible researchers, and some researchers blame the vendors.
While there are bugs being found, researchers will always seek to earn
money from them. They'll sell them, or use them for marketing
purposes; nothing says "look at me" like a zero-day in Windows.
Until that changes, the security industry will look like the Wild West
for a long time to come. For now, it's the users left in the middle.
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