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Despite risk of aiding hackers, experts favor disclosing vulnerabilities

Antone Gonsalves | Oct. 8, 2013
Vulnerability disclosure gives users a chance to defend themselves.

A recent Microsoft presentation on the ethics of disclosing vulnerabilities before a patch is available sparked a debate Thursday among experts who tended to lean in favor of releasing information sooner than later.

The joint presentation from Microsoft and Lancope, given this week at the Virus Bulletin conference in Berlin, brought a new twist to what has been a hot topic for years in the security industry.

Holly Stewart, senior program manager lead at Microsoft's Malware Protection Center, and Tim Cross, director of security research at Lancope, looked at pre-patch releases of vulnerabilities that were being exploited by cybercriminals. In looking at a number of cases over the last few years, the duo came to the conclusion that such releases caused a "significant bandwagoning effect" among attackers.

"When real attack activity confirms the practical value of a vulnerability, and attackers know that no one can defend themselves because patches aren't available, that's an opportunity that they tend to jump on in large numbers," Cross said on Lancope's blog.

One such case was the Stuxnet malware widely believed to have been developed by the U.S. and Israel to damage Iranian nuclear facilities. The malicious program targeted a previously unknown vulnerability in Windows.

Once Stuxnet was discovered and the vulnerability disclosed, the rate at which the latter was exploited by hackers exceeded the infection rate of the original Stuxnet exploit, Cross said.

Therefore, Microsoft and Lancope drew the conclusion that even when attacks are underway, synchronizing the disclosure of vulnerabilities with a software vendor's patch release made sense.

"Getting the right answer involves considering how quickly the vendor will be able to produce a patch, whether there are practical workarounds available before the patch comes out, and how quickly attack activity is spreading on the Internet," Cross said.

In polling a half dozen security experts, CSOonline found differences in degrees. While some believed releasing vulnerabilities should be the priority, others felt researchers should strive for cooperation with the software vendor.

Jeremiah Grossman, chief technology officer for WhiteHat Security, fell into the former camp.

"As a researcher, you want to give potential victims who want to protect themselves the information they need to do so," he said. "This means disclosing the vulnerability details when they become known.

"Those who are more complacent, who wouldn't put the vulnerability details to use anyway, are going to get hacked one way or the other."

Paul Henry, security and forensic analyst at Lumension, was more willing to compromise with vendors.

"I am a firm believer in responsible disclosure whereby the researcher and vendor agree on a time frame for the vendor to correct the issue before the researcher releases details on the issue," he said. "In my opinion releasing details prior to a vendor providing a patch does a dis-service to the community at large."


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