Inside the Third-Party Patching Conundrum

By Ryan Naraine  |  Posted 2006-09-29 Print this article Print

The emergence of a high-profile group of security experts offering third-party patches during emergencies has reignited a debate on the pros and cons of deploying unsupported product upgrades.

The emergence of a high-profile group of security professionals promising third-party software fixes during zero-day attacks has rekindled a debate on the merits—and risks—associated with deploying unsupported product updates.

The Zero Day Emergency Response Team, or ZERT, stepped out of stealth mode on Sept. 22 with a stopgap patch for a VML (Vector Markup Language) flaw that was the target of drive-by malware downloads—and, with a roster of well-respected security professionals on board, the concept of using a temporary fix ahead of Microsofts official update gained instant credibility.

Click here to read about ZERTs emergency IE patch.
Marcus Sachs, a former White House IT security expert who agreed to serve as corporate evangelist for the ZERT effort, said third-party mitigations will become even more important in what he describes as "a nasty zero-day world."

"This patch is just another arrow in the quiver. These guys [in ZERT] are some of the best-known reverse engineers and security researchers. Its a tight-knit group that has worked for years to make the Internet a safer place," said Sachs, in Washington. "This isnt a patch created by some guy in a basement. Its something that has been tested as rigorously as humanly possible," he said in an interview with eWEEK.

Sachs, who serves as a deputy director in the Computer Science Laboratory at SRI International, stressed that third-party patches should always carry "buyer-beware" tags because they are unsupported, but he believes IT administrators should strongly consider testing and deploying updates during emergencies.

"In this case, Microsoft had not yet issued a patch, and we had already confirmed zero-day attacks were spreading in the wild. Were not telling anyone to use it; were just offering it as an alternative," he added.

The ZERT patch is the third instance this year where a third-party fix was pushed out ahead of an official Microsoft update. In January, at the height of the WMF (Windows Metafile) virus attack, reverse-engineering guru Ilfak Guilfanov created and distributed a hotfix that was endorsed by the SANS ISC (Internet Storm Center), a group that tracks malicious Internet activity.

In March, two well-respected security companies —eEye Digital Security and Determina—shipped hotfixes for Microsofts Internet Explorer to provide cover for a code execution hole that was being attacked. eEye, in Aliso Viejo, Calif., claims its patch was downloaded more than 150,000 times in a two-week span and said feedback from IT professionals confirmed that there was a desperate need for third-party patches, depending on the severity of the public exploit and in advance of an official patch.

Peter Coffee has zero tolerance for Microsoft Office. Click here to read his analysis. "Is there a need for third-party patches? Absolutely," said Ross Brown, CEO at eEye. "Most of the customers that downloaded our patch [in March] were from corporate domains. They were testing and deploying on thousands of systems. We know for a fact that people found it valuable enough to use it."

Next Page: Frustration over Microsofts slow responses.


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