originally at: http://www.synthesis.net/tech/fulldisclosure/index.html
Full Disclosure - Effective or Excuse?
A comprehensive look at the practice of Full Disclosure, problems
associated with it for vendors and security companies, and examples
of full disclosure put to the test. (3300 words)
The world of computer security has developed a wicked game of
politically correct 'cat and mouse'. This game is played out through
security professionals contacting software vendors to report security
vulnerabilities that affect a large portion of their customers. Like
a large percentage of professional interaction, the supposed need
to act within certain guidelines or be 'politically correct' (PC)
comes into play. The side affect to this game comes in the form of
slower patches and upgrades to address the problem.
What is Full Disclosure?
When a bug in a piece of software is found, the person finding the
bug has two courses of action. The first is to notify the software
vendor so they may fix the problem in future revisions. In some cases,
these bugs pose serious security problems and warrant patches to
existing versions. The second course of action is to post the full
details of the bug to a public mail list or Usenet newsgroup. In doing
so, you are sharing the full details of potentially serious bugs
that could affect millions of people. Posting the information is done
so that administrators around the world can understand the problem
and figure out how to respond to it. With anything less than full disclosure
of the problem, administrators may react incorrectly or be unable to
convince users and management that the problem is serious.
Most individuals or companies discovering bugs choose a mix of both
courses of actions. They opt to give the software vendor a set amount
of time to address the problem before they release full details to
the public. This is done as an exercise in ethics as some of these bugs
pose a serious threat to many organizations. Imagine if a company released
full details to the public on a bug that left thousands of government
and military systems vulnerable. If the information lead to hackers
penetrating these systems, it raises an issue of responsibility on the
part of the group reporting the bug. Giving software vendors a heads up
about the problem enables them to avert disaster and protect
Why the Rush?
The logical argument would be to give vendors as much time as possible
to fix the bug before going public. While this may sound reasonable, in
reality it is not always the best course of action. Every day the vendor spends addressing the
problem, it becomes more likely that other individuals will find the same
bug currently being addressed. For each person that finds the bug, the
better chance that one will not be as ethical and responsible with
the information. The goal of responsible security professionals is to
address as many security concerns in the shortest amount of time possible.
Gratitude (or lack thereof)
Many software vendors spend all their time and energy creating their
products. In this process there is a noticeable lack of care or attention
spent on proactive auditing of the products looking for security
vulnerabilities. Customers purchase these products expecting secure
software but often find it lacking. They turn to security companies
to help them present a secure network posture for their corporate
networks. In doing so, many of the security professionals run across
vulnerabilities and bugs that could affect their clients. In essence,
this translates into continued and diverse free security auditing
for many software vendors. The type of auditing that often costs
some clients up to $500/hr. Software vendors must be grateful, right?
Of course not. Speaking from past experience, I can assure you many
vendors take bug reports as a personal affront and insult. Initial
responses to original bug reports have been downright hostile in the
past. It amazes me that these vendors show anything less than 110%
gratification and respect for people reporting security problems.
While the software vendors advertise secure platforms, their poor
coding and inadequate security auditing lead to these problems to begin
"The Solaris Operating Environment has been carefully
engineered to deliver a reliable, high-performance,
scalable, and secure platform on which to develop
and deploy desktop and server applications."
[In a colorful bar chart:] "35% Lower TCO, 30% Faster,
1/3 Fewer helpdesk calls, Strong Security."
Killing the proverbial messenger does not solve the problem
or help the situation. To expect bug reporters to send the information
to them, let alone wait up to half a year for a fix is overly
presumptuous and egotistical. Companies that share vulnerability
information before releasing it to the public should be regarded
as heroes, nothing less.
Delays: Why Vendors Take So Long
Software vendors often have a legitimate reason for asking bug reporters
not to go public right away. Often times consumers aren't aware of all
of the conditions surrounding patching a vulnerability. This leads to
a cry for faster release of information and quicker patches/fixes.
The trick to the argument is deciding on a good amount of time to give
these vendors as they often DO stall unnecessarily on releases (this said
based on a long case history). Some of the valid reasons vendors delay
that may escape some people:
- 'Regression Testing'. When bugs are reported for a specific version
of a piece of software, the vendor is obligated to test and fix ALL
affected versions. Once all vulnerable versions are identified, patches
must be developed. Next, full tests must be run on previous versions of
the software with the new patches to assure the new changes don't affect
other aspects of the software.
- Architecture. In today's software world, dozens of different hardware
platforms exist. Patches for the PC platform are different than those
for Sparc hardware. NT patches for the Alpha vs PC could include a wide
variety of alterations.
- Additional bugs. A handful of software vendors learned via trial by
fire that a hasty fix is not always a quality fix. Days after the initial
bug was reported and fixed, slight variations of the same bug surface
days later providing a healthy dose of mud to the vendor's face.
- Beuracracy. Software companies are often big, and full of internal
procedure. Departments don't always play well with others.
Incentive Not to Report Bugs
Going beyond the lack of appreciation vendors show, there are several other
reasons not to report bugs after discovering them.
- In one case, a security company provided a large Unix vendor with
a full technical writeup, working (and commented) exploit code, and
half an hour explanation of the bug over the phone. Despite all of this,
the technicians at the vendor still could not figure out how it all
worked. Up to a year later, the vendor was still seeking assistance
in getting the exploit to work.
- In 1998, the same security company worked with another large Unix
vendor with a nasty remote exploit that gave attackers full access.
During the exchange of information, the security company asked if they
could get a "thanks" or some kind of credit in the advisory the
vendor would eventually release. Despite releasing their own advisory
carefully timed to coincide with the vendor, and despite hours of
tech support, the vendor still would not give the company credit.
Subsequent security newsletters quoted the vendor as the original
poster of the bug information, not the security company.
- After a miscommunication between security company eEye and
software vendor Microsoft over the
public dissemination of vulnerability information, Microsoft representatives
attempted to place all blame on eEye at a public convention. Without the
presence of any eEye employees, a Microsoft spokesperson stood up during
the Full Disclosure track at the Black
Hat Briefings and proclaimed that Microsoft was the wounded dog, being
kicked by big bad eEye Security. The miscommunication? A twenty four hour
difference on when to post the information to public forums.
Two specific examples of security/vendor dealings in the past illustrate
these points very well. Each demonstrates that vendors have more control
over the issue than they admit to. In our examples, both security companies
maintained the same stance on full disclosure. One of the companies
held firm with their intention to go public in a set time. The other
company adhered to the time table set by the vendor and watched the issue
move from weeks to months.
Please Repent? (No Firm Stance)
In the middle of 1998, a security company called RepSec (RSI) found several
vulnerable functions in one of the Solaris libraries. Upon contacting Sun
Microsystems they were informed it would take some time to fix the bugs and
issue patches. Repsec asked Sun for two weeks before they released their
advisory to the public. Sun countered asking for at least a full month to
resolve the issue. Mail went back and forth trying to work out an acceptable
time frame for both parties. After two weeks, Repsec did not go through with
the release of their advisory, instead waiting for Sun to give the go
After weeks more of delays, Sun still wasn't ready. Almost two full months
had passed with more requests for Repsec to hold off on releasing their
advisory. Excuses of regression testing, dispute on which functions were
vulnerable and more came from Sun. Repsec held back, worried that the
information hitting public forums could give hackers dangerous new
vulnerability information that could be used to break into more machines.
A little more than two full months passed and customers of Repsec were
getting frustrated. They had seen the advisory and questioned why it had
not been released publicly. When given the answer that Sun was delaying
further, one of their customers took matters into their own hands.
An unknown customer of Repsec decided Sun was being irresponsible and posted
the information to Bugtraq. After two months of stalling on a fix from
Sun, with no estimate on completion of patches, Sun miraculously posted
a full patch and information on the vulnerability. To many security
professionals, this proved that full disclosure was the most effective
and speediest solution to a problem affecting many people. Had Repsec
held firm with their original plan to go public in two weeks, no doubt
Sun would have followed a day after with a patch. Subsequent advisories
from Repsec on Sun products reverted to long delays before patches
or advisories were issued. By not holding firm to release dates, it
allowed the vendor to control vital security fixes to widely used
Do Things Our Way, It's Better (Firm Stance)
In June of 1999, a relatively new security company called eEye Security
found a severe vulnerability in Microsoft's IIS. Because of the widespread
popularity of Windows NT and the large install base of IIS, this
vulnerability posed a serious threat to millions of companies world wide.
eEye notified Microsoft of the vulnerability along with their intention
to make details public in a weeks time. Microsoft immediately wanted
more time, and asked for it in a less than polite fashion.
Holding true to their word, eEye released the details of the vulnerability
in an advisory
to the public as scheduled, along with links to Microsoft's timely patch.
In seven days, Microsoft was able to assess the problem, release their own
and create a working
patch with regression testing. Had eEye not held firm on their intended
release date, Microsoft would have taken as much time as possible before
releasing a patch. Past history shows they would rather avoid (or downplay)
any potential egg on the face, especially when it comes to security
Since their initial dealings with Microsoft, eEye has received nothing
but quick and courteous responses. Says Firas Bushnaq of eEye,
"We have noticed a big improvement in Microsoft's handling of security
related issues in the past few months. Response time is down to hours
compared to days. Someone must have sent an internal memo."
Because of their diligence in releasing vital information to the public
on their time schedule and managing the expectations of the software
vendor, eEye's policy on full disclosure has lead to a more responsive,
open and attentive software vendor.
Case in Point?
Looking at a history of vendor released security advisories, a pattern
emerges that suggests a firm stance on public dissemination of
vulnerability information has its merits. Comparing a vendor like
Sun Microsystems, we see no pattern of continued releases despite
new vulnerabilities brought to light each month on full disclosure
security mail lists. Looking at Microsoft, not only do we see a regular
release of information, we see a sharp increase shortly after the
eEye/Microsoft releases about the IISHACK vulnerability. Is the increase
in advisories due to companies like eEye holding firm on their promise
of full disclosure? Sure seems like it.
Sun Microsoft Sun Microsoft
Nov 1998 2 1 May 1999 6
Dec 1998 3 3 Jun 1999 2 5
Jan 1999 2 Jul 1999 3
Feb 1999 3 5 Aug 1999 1* 6
Mar 1999 3 Sep 1999 1 9
Apr 1999 2 Oct 1999 1
* Reprint of CERT Advisory
There are at least two arguments that suggest security companies have
little to do with trends in vendors increasing in full disclosure.
The first argument lies in the fact that Microsoft is relatively new
to security advisories. Their first advisory
was released January
21, 1999 putting them into their first year of full disclosure. Older
vendors that have been around like Sun Microsystems released their
on September 5, 1990. Despite Microsoft being relatively
new to the advisory game, unlike other vendors they have the luxury of
learning from nearly a decade of other vendor's experiences.
Others may cite that the previous example of a security company dealing
with a large Unix vendor had little affect in the long run. That even
faced with a security company threatening public release of vulnerability
information, they reverted to delayed response and little public concern.
The flaw in this argument is that the security company gave in to the
desires of the vendor and followed their recommendations for release dates.
This is further backed by the fact that the vendor provided patch and
advisory within days of the information being released by a third party.
While this is not definitive proof, it certainly weighs heavy on the
fact that some companies policy of firm dates on full disclosure is
a good thing.
One man's rant? Opinions on Full Disclosure
How do security professionals and operating system vendors view full
disclosure and security vulnerabilities?
Al Huger (Security Focus, POC for two security companies dealing with reporting bugs to vendors)
"Full disclosure is in and of itself a means to an end. Many people
participate in it not out of malice, but out of the hope that with
enough public scrutiny vendors will finally take responsibility for
the software they write.
Make no mistake about it, full disclosure is ugly. People get hurt,
however, I see no reasonable alternative. For every responsible bug
reporter out there it's likely he/she has a counterpart who will most
likely keep the information for themselves and use to ends that we would
all rather avoid.
In a perfect world vendors would perform rigorous security audits,
previous to market release. In a perfect world we would still have
buggy software (this is something we will never lose) but we would
also have vendors who make security a pre-emptive consideration as
opposed to a forced reaction."
Aleph1 (Bugtraq Moderator, most popular and active full disclosure security mail list)
Let me clarify our disclosure policy. Some people get the impression
we are full disclosure extremist. We are not.
First, we rather you work with the vendor to create a patch or fix
to the problem. If the vendor is responsive and they are making a
good faith effort to release a fix in a timely manner we rather you
keep the existence of the vulnerability secret until such a time when
the vendor has the fix ready. You can then release both the
vulnerability information and patch at the same time. The reasoning
behind this is two fold. First in our experience saying a vulnerability
exists but not releasing full information seldom stops attackers from
obtaining details of the vulnerability. Attackers will research the
problem and either come up with the information on their own or will
hack their way to someone with details of the vulnerability.
Second, releasing both the details and the fix at the same time
minimizes the time attackers have to find the vulnerability on their
own. Next, we like that people post full details of the vulnerability
once the vendor has released a fix or a patch. The reason behind this
is that once patches are out attackers can easily reverse engineer
them figure out what the vulnerability was. Thus you are only keeping
in the dark the good guys. Knowing the vulnerability details allows
people to verify that fix indeed fixes the vulnerability (we seen many
cases where it doesn't, or it does so in a bad way), it allows people
to look for similar vulnerabilities in other systems, and it allows
people to learn from the mistakes that enabled the vulnerability."
Firas Bushnaq (eEye Digital Security, POC for reporting bugs to Microsoft)
The adoption of Full Disclosure is an ethic, our responsibility and
the duty of every security professional is to disclose the facts. How
and when we disclose the facts is on the other hand the most crucial
part of full disclosure. Many factors come into play, the seriousness
and implications of the bug, how long has it been since it was discovered,
how responsive is the vendor and how dependant are we on the vendor for
We look at a network security breach as a violation of our safety and
privacy and we will continue to tactically plan and execute to make sure
that we address the issues in the shortest amount of time possible. Vendors
are becoming more aware, end users are becoming more informed and our
networks are becoming more secure.
Erik Berls (NetBSD Team, Vendor POC for receiving bug reports)
"We try to aggressively pursue any security bug, verify it within
our operating system, issue an immediate temporary fix and release
a correct solution as well as a security advisory as soon as possible.
It tends to operate on a timeframe based on hours not weeks."
Past, Present and Future
The history of security bugs is rather bleak. For years, full disclosure
was not practiced by security professionals or vendors. Small groups of
interested parties exchanged information amongst themselves, unwilling to
disclose it to the masses. As these bugs were slowly found by others or
passed on to vendors, they eventually got fixed. This time of security
through obscurity did little for the overall perception of secure computing.
The present finds us in a new frame of mind. One that sees full disclosure
as a viable and important way of dealing with vulnerabilties that can
lead to disastrous effects. Slowly, vendors are learning that security
is a growing concern to more and more people, and that responding to these
concerns in short order helps everyone in the long run.
So what does the future hold? I hope that all software vendors acknowledge
the success of full disclosure and adjust their own procedures to
synchronize with it. That quick and open responses to the security companies
and individuals reporting these bugs becomes the standard, not the few
Brian Martin (bmartin[at]attrition.org)
* I am an ex-employee of RepSec (RSI)