Are Security Bugs Special?

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2008-07-29 Print this article Print

One famous programmer thinks they're crowding out a lot of other good development that needs to be done. Are they just regular bugs like all the others?

I spend a lot of my time writing about security bugs found in products and what is done about them. In fact, there are hundreds of blogs and news outlets that spend a considerable amount of time on such bugs. The news "markets" seem to think they're worthy of the attention. An industry has built up in the harvesting of these bugs and their sale to clients, both for good and bad reasons.

Not everyone thinks this is a good situation. Take one Linus Torvalds who, in a recent e-mail discussion, called the whole security bug management process corrupt. [Warning: Linus uses some very coarse language in this discussion.] His basic argument is that security bugs are just bugs like non-security bugs. The focus on them is taking away attention from non-security bugs that also need to be addressed.

Obviously there's a lot of truth in Linus's argument. First, there's something just plain wrong about companies paying people to find exploitable security flaws in other people's software, and then selling that information. But Linus seems to be talking more about the impact of embargos on development. There is a private mailing list among operating system distributors and vendors called vendor-sec used (citing Wikipedia here) to discuss security issues in distributions and coordinate release of fixes.

Such "coordination" often involves an embargo on the release of information about these bugs, and it's not hard to see how keeping such things secret would rub the wrong way someone who has done so much, more than anyone perhaps, to keep the development of software open. The secrecy culture around security fixes seems, to Linus, antithetical to the philosophy that made Linux not just possible, but successful. He has some really nasty things to say about vendor-sec in particular (this is the part with the worst foul language).

Linus isn't the only one p-o'd at vendor-sec. About halfway down this very long message (watch out for more sailor talk) the author (Al Viro, another Linux kernel developer) goes on about what a mistake working with vendor-sec was for him, and for much the same reason as with Linus. Anyway, the "coordination" doesn't seem to have accomplished much. The list is populated with Linux and BSD distributors who are notorious for being out of synch with each other, although perhaps less so for security bugs.

I have to think that this is another case of an ideological viewpoint running smack into the brick wall of market realities. Yes, there's a defensible philosophical argument that all bugs deserve attention and that security isn't everything. I can understand Linus's distaste for the culture of secrecy around security bugs, but I do think they are more important that most other bugs. A really serious security bug, like the recent DNS bug, really does merit telling everyone to drop everything else and fix this right now.

But it's a free country, for the most part, and I hope nobody thinks they can tell anyone, least of all Linus Torvalds, what he must and must not write. Security's important, but it's not the only thing, and someone's got to keep the other functions working well too.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

For insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer's blog Cheap Hack

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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