Tuesday May 15, 2007

SLOTD: Infoworld Writes On Vulnerability Fixing...

So a friend punted this URL over to me:

InfoWorld: Should vendors close all security holes?
Fix it or forget it? A reader presents an intriguing counterpoint

In last week's column, I argued that vendors should close all known security holes. A reader wrote me with a somewhat interesting argument that I'm still slightly debating, although my overall conclusion stands: Vendors should close all known security holes, whether publicly discussed or not. The idea behind this is that any existing security vulnerability should be closed to strengthen the product and protect consumers. Sounds great, right?

The reader wrote to say that his company often sits on security bugs until they are publicly announced or until at least one customer complaint is made. Before you start disagreeing with this policy, hear out the rest of his argument.


...and I shared the link and article with our security community chat channel, inviting comment. The result itself surpassed what I was intending to write, and provides food for thought:

  • (15:36:32) alecm has changed the topic to: http://www.infoworld.com/article/07/05/11/20OPsecadvise_1.html - Comments please before I SLOTD a critique...

  • (16:13:03) bartb: alecm: what kind of comments are you looking for? Summary of thoughts: reality says you'll always have bugs, you'll always be short-staffed, so fix those that are publicly known, fix those that have a large-ish impact, fix the remainder if time permits.

  • (16:33:14) darrenm: re: the topic, I agree with some of what is being said in that article though not the "defer indefinitely until it is reported" way; priority scheduling for fixes to get patches out for those that are publically known is a no-brainer.

  • (17:32:15) bartb: alecm: schneier's fresh blog posting may be of interest around your planned blog post

  • (17:46:27) alecm: My take on the Infoworld article: I think it's a bad idea, I'm with Bart and Darren but probably showing my sys-admin heritage. To me security-bugs need "fixing" ASAP they are found, and yes I expect vendors to do the extant exploits first... but if a hole is wide-open and I am told about it, I can mitigate it in more ways than a software patch. Eg: Firewall port-blocking. Hence why I support full-disclosure within a per-event "reasonable" time period.

  • (18:08:45) Avalon: Yes, vendors should close all security holes.

  • (18:09:14) sommerfeld: the more interesting question is: given limited development resources, in what order should they be closed.

  • (18:09:59) Avalon: There's another question that begs to be asked by that article: what about security holes that are closed without being disclosed publicly? I make that point because quite obviously someone is saying that fixing one (and subsequent patch/fix announcement) draws more attention and therefor exploits than without said publicity.

  • (18:11:19) sommerfeld: what about security holes that are closed without the developer realizing that they bug they fixed was exploitable? I have done this. IMHO that's the best kind of security fix - \*NOBODY\* knows about the exploit! The one time in my memory when someone asked me why I didn't publish a security alert on a bugfix, it was because I had been fixing a bunch of gcc -Wall warnings and didn't stop to check whether any of the fixes were exploitable.

  • (18:12:38) Avalon: hmmm, the article does mention people reverse engineering patches. Hmmm... Would you rather have only the Red Army know about your bugs or everyone? It's unquestioned that there are teams of Chinese hackers trying to break into military and commercial systems around the world. They've got access to more man power than most hacker organisations ever will...

  • (18:18:12) alecm: Avalon: have you a citation for the chinese thing ?

  • (18:37:02) Avalon: USA Today.

...and on rolls the paranoid chatter which drives all us security geeks. I thought I would post this and open it up to discussion than just leave it hanging.

In summary I would suggest (in slight disagreement with the "fix it when it goes public" position cited by the article) that the consensus amongst our little group is that we should fix everything because that's the right thing to do; but pragmatic prioritisation in the face of exploitation is wise.

You just can't rely on that, since you don't always know when you're being exploited.

- alec


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