Irresponsible Bug Disclosure

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2006-04-27 Print this article Print

Opinion: Michal Zalewski thinks what he did was civil disobedience. But that's where you put yourself in danger, not everyone else.

Its a free country. Youre allowed to say all kinds of distasteful and offensive things, especially when youre telling the truth. And youre allowed to disclose security vulnerabilities in IT products. But theres still a right way and a wrong way to do it. Michal Zalewski has problems with Microsoft. He thinks Microsoft doesnt cooperate with the security research community, that in fact it abuses that community, that it disserves its customers and doesnt take security seriously.

For all this, when he discovered a bug in Internet Explorer that caused it to crash, he decided not to disclose it to Microsoft through the normal channels ( but instead to disclose it publicly on the popular Full-Disclosure mailing list.

Its important to note at this point that, for all the use of terms like "highly critical," theres still no actual claims by anyone that they have been able to exploit the crash in order to execute attack code. Zalewski is very clear about this himself, and much more reasonable in his evaluation of the severity of the vulnerability than some outside agencies like Secunia.

Many crashes like this turn out to be exploitable, but not all of them do, and some are only exploitable with great difficulty. In other words, this may turn out to be nothing more than a way for a Web page to crash your browser.

Microsoft ponders an emergency patch. Click here to read more.

Or it might turn out to be exploitable, in which case its a way for a Web page to execute arbitrary code on your browser, including installing programs.

Lets assume what is likely, that Microsoft found out about this vulnerability the same time as everyone else, when the company read it in Full-Disclosure. That means that Microsoft has only had since then to research it and work on a patch.

Next page: Responsible disclosure.

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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