Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Software Bugs: To Disclose or Not to Disclose

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It’s the age-old battle of security: to disclose or not to disclose

software defects.

The proverbial pendulum of opinion has been swinging back and forth on

this issue for decades, and it’s not likely to stop any time soon. The

issue reappeared just recently when an ISS employee was prohibited from

speaking at a conference on the topic of a security vulnerability in

Cisco’s IOS operating system.

Here’s my take on it…

First off, it’s not a simple yes or no issue. There are different shades

of gray here, folks. At the two ends of the extreme we have no disclosure

and ‘spontaneous disclosure’. Neither of these are even worthy of serious

consideration in any practical sense, since neither produce any sort of

positive results.

The litmus test of positive results that I’ve always used over the years

is this: Does publicizing the details of this vulnerability make the

problem smaller or bigger? We’re talking big picture now.

It’s been my experience that not releasing information on a vulnerability

invariably results in a larger problem than the one we started with.

This is primarily because the people who need to know about the

vulnerability most — the end users and system administrators — aren’t

armed with the appropriate information to make informed decisions on when

and how to update their systems.

In my book, that is unconscionable.

At the other extreme, it’s also been my experience that spontaneous

disclosure — releasing everything about a vulnerability the moment or so

that it’s discovered — also results in a larger problem than the one we

started with. The end users and system administrators often don’t have

practical solutions or workarounds (for instance, turning off email is

not an acceptable business solution in almost every case). Similarly, the

product vendors are forced to slap together a quick patch that may or may

not address the root cause (no pun intended) of the problem. We’ll delve

into this further in a moment…

So, both of these options are non-starters. If we accept these arguments,

then it becomes a question of how we release information and what

information we release. That’s where my opinion differs from that of a

lot of the practitioners out there.

There are a few published and ad hoc processes for responsible disclosure

of vulnerability information. My biggest gripe with them is that they

don’t take into account the software engineering that needs to take place

at the vendor level to appropriately address the problem. In particular,

most call for a static, predetermined time period between notifying the

product vendor and the public release of information about the

vulnerability. That model is horribly flawed.

Setting a Deadline

My rationale is as follows. At the top-most level, software security

defects fall into two general categories: design flaws and implementation

bugs. It’s the implementation bugs that we hear the most about in popular

literature. They include buffer overflows, SQL insertion, cross-site

scripting, and the like. The most common cause of these problems is

inadequate filtering of user data inputs.

Many, but not all, implementation bugs can be fixed quite simply and

easily. A poorly constructed string manipulation function in C, for

example, can be made secure in just a line or two of remedial coding.

On the other hand, design flaws can be much more pernicious. The fix to a

design flaw by its very definition requires the developer to change the

application’s design. A design change can have far-reaching

ramifications. Think basic software engineering principles here.

To responsibly make a security change to an application’s design requires

the same degree of engineering scrutiny, testing, etc., that goes into

designing the application in the first place, lest even nastier flaws

(and perhaps even implementation bugs) appear as a result.

It all comes down to this… Some software defects can be fixed quickly

and easily, while others can require great deals of engineering effort to

be properly fixed. There is a broad spectrum of effort levels required to

fix any particular vulnerability.

So, you see, setting an arbitrary time period for disclosing a

vulnerability is not responsible at all.

Instead, the period of time should vary depending on the nature of the

vulnerability itself. Forcing some time period into the process is like

holding the proverbial gun to the head of the product vendor, and that

can’t possibly result in the sorts of patches we all want for our


Even if you work with a product vendor to negotiate an appropriate amount

of time for disclosing a vulnerability, the next issue in disclosing

responsibly is what information to disclose. Most CERT-like organizations

have formats for vulnerability advisories that do a good job here.

The most controversial topic here is how far to go in disclosing. For

example, is it reasonable to disclose an example of how to exploit the

vulnerability? Again, I look to my litmus test, and I err on the

conservative side: It makes the overall problem bigger to disclose

example exploit code. Now, I realize that a lot of you are hissing and

spitting at me right now, and I can accept that criticism. My opinion is

unchanged by it, however.

There are good ways and bad ways of disclosing vulnerability information.

If we all share the goal of having secure applications that have had

their known defects fixed, then it’s in our collective best interest to

allow the product vendor the necessary time to properly engineer and test

security patches. Otherwise, we’re condemned to an existence of getting

security patches that have been developed under duress, cause other

problems, or just plain old don’t work right.

Come to think of it, that is a pretty accurate description of many of the

patches that we see from all too many of our software product vendors,

and that’s no coincidence.

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