Patch or we go public, says bug bounty program

TippingPoint's ZDI sets a 6-month deadline on vendors to encourage faster patching

The world's biggest bug bounty program today slapped a six-month deadline on vendors, saying it would release some vulnerability information, even if a patch wasn't ready.

"We're going to be enforcing a six-month deadline as general policy," said Aaron Portnoy, who leads the security research team at HP TippingPoint.

It's a major change for TippingPoint's Zero Day Initiative (ZDI), which buys vulnerabilities from independent security researchers, privately reports them to vendors and then uses the information to craft defenses for its own line of security appliances. Previously, ZDI's policy was to indefinitely withhold a vulnerability, publishing its information only after a patch had been issued.

Starting Wednesday, ZDI will give vendors six months to come up with a patch. Bugs currently in its queue get a deadline that's six months from now: Feb. 4, 2011.

If a fix isn't ready by the deadline, ZDI will pressure the vendor by issuing an advisory that will include what Portnoy called "limited details" of the vulnerability, as well as any workarounds ZDI can come up with to help protect users until a patch does appear.

But the new line in the sand is movable. "For vulnerabilities that may be more impactful, like ones in the core operating system, we will provide an extension on a case-by-case basis," Portnoy said in an interview. A vulnerability in the Windows kernel would be a good example of a candidate for extension.

"But if we provide an extension, we'll be totally transparent, and publish the full communications between us and the vendor once it's patched," Portnoy said.

The back-and-forth between security researchers and vendors, such as what Core Security has occasionally published when it's grown frustrated with Microsoft's patching pace, is sometimes as interesting, or even more so, than the actual bugs, giving everyone a behind-the-scenes look at how large software developers handle vulnerability reports.

Portnoy said the change had been a long-time coming, and wasn't directly connected to the debate over bug disclosure that heated up in early June when a Google employee went public with a critical Windows vulnerability just five days after reporting it to Microsoft.

"We've been thinking about this for quite a while," said Portnoy, arguing that the delays on the part of vendors put it ZDI in a tight spot. "We have to track some of these bugs for two years, three years, which slows us down."

Currently, ZDI is holding information on 31 critical bugs that it reported to vendors a year ago or longer. "[Vendors] have the responsibility to fix the issues," said Portnoy. "We shouldn't be held responsible for withholding information until they do."

Portnoy made it clear that part of the reason for the new deadline is to pressure the intransigent to patch. "By releasing some information, it puts the spotlight on vendors," Portnoy said.

He also argued that the secrecy over vulnerabilities may end up doing users a disservice. "There's been a lot of discovery overlap, where several [researchers] find the exact same vulnerability," said Portnoy. Immunity and Vulpen, two rival security firms, report bug discoveries only to their own customers, not to the vendors. "Some of what Immunity has could very well be among those we're sitting on right now," Portnoy added.

"This is the most responsible way we can think of to report vulnerabilities," Portnoy continued. "It's irresponsible to sit on the vulnerability forever. So we could do what we've been doing, or we can release limited details of the vulnerability and ways to mitigate the threat [after six months]."

Microsoft, a frequent recipient of ZDI's bug reports, was "doubtful" about the change when TippingPoint talked to Microsoft's representatives at last week's Black Hat security conference, Portnoy said.

Today, Microsoft said it disagreed with the new deadline. "Only in the event of active attacks is public disclosure, focused on mitigations and workarounds, likely the best course of action," said Dave Forstrom, director of Microsoft's overarching Trustworthy Computing group, in an e-mail. "And even then it should be coordinated as closely as possible."

Others applauded ZDI's changes, but wished they had set a tougher deadline.

"This has been a long time coming," said HD Moore, chief security officer of Rapid7 and the creator of the well-known Metasploit penetration testing kit. "ZDI is in a difficult place. They have to toe the line between disclosure and being part of programs like MAPP. So this is probably the most aggressive they could get. But I think six months is a bit generous."

TippingPoint is a participant in MAPP, the Microsoft Active Protections Program, which provides technical information about Microsoft's bugs to vetted security software developers before the release of patches.

Google would likely agree with Moore. Last month, it reignited the debate about bug reporting with a proposal that featured, among other things, a call that researchers set a 60-day deadline. Under Google's plan, researchers would be free to take their findings public if a patch wasn't produced by the two-month deadline.

Days later, Microsoft responded by saying it wanted to change the term "responsible disclosure" to "coordinated vulnerability disclosure" to better reflect its policy and to remove the loaded word "responsible" from the discussion.

But Microsoft does not like the idea of having its feet held to the fire.

"Many vulnerability coordinators have established timelines for disclosure and as always, we'll continue to work with them to in a way that minimizes customer risk," said Forstrom. "Microsoft advocates for coordinated vulnerability disclosure, where vendors and finders work together closely toward a resolution."

Google today declined comment on ZDI's change, instead pointing to a line in its July proposal about bug reporting: " Creating pressure towards more reasonably-timed fixes will result in smaller windows of opportunity for blackhats to abuse vulnerabilities."

VeriSign iDefense, which operates a smaller-scale bug bounty program than TippingPoint, did not reply to a request for the comment. The company has hinted it might make changes, however.

"We should carefully watch and respond to the recent change in vulnerability disclosure trends," iDefense said four weeks ago on Twitter .

Portnoy said that ZDI's new deadline would help, not harm users. "We won't be publishing enough information for an attack to develop an exploit," he said. "But the shorter we can make that window of opportunity, the better it is for everyone."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is .

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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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