Responsible Disclosure

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

Lots of other researchers dont like Microsoft but still give the company first shot at vulnerabilities in its products. Some hold off however long Microsoft takes, some give the company a specific period of time. Consider this example that just came cross the wire—Matthew Murphy gave Microsoft six months, during which the company partly addressed the problem.

But Zalewski, as a protest basically against how he says Microsoft treats researchers like him, decided to just disclose. It seems to me that Zalewski thinks that its researchers who matter, but in fact its users who matter, and his action is obviously harmful to users because it increases the likelihood that an exploit will become available before a solution and it increases the duration of that period of time. Just who does he think he is?

Actually, Zalewski says that he does things like this "whenever I can reasonably believe that no immediate harm would be done to third parties." This seems inconsistent to me. If he really does think that this might be an exploitable vulnerability and he discloses it without advance notice to the vendor, of course theres a chance of harm to third parties. He just wont let that get in the way of him showing off what a troublemaker he is. Wow, Im impressed.

Its frustrating to see Microsoft take many months at times addressing serious vulnerabilities, but there are times when it absolutely makes sense. One of the most famous examples is MS04-007, the ASN.1 vulnerability. It was an extremely serious vulnerability disclosed confidentially to Microsoft about six months beforehand.

Click here to read more about social engineering traps used to trick users.

The ASN.1 code was all in a single DLL, but its a widely used technology, and the test matrix for fixes to it was immense. According to Microsoft they found many problems in testing the various solutions, and every time they come up with another solution its back to the testing drawing board for multiple versions of Windows in 26 languages. And for some technologies (ASN.1 is probably a good example) you cant automate all the tests. Some of them need a human looking at the screen.

I dont know what the "borderline extortion practices" he refers to are, but theres no conceivable value to the public in him disclosing publicly with no advance notice to the vendor. With a serious bug this is on par with leaving gasoline and matches around and pointing out that there are flammable buildings about.

Zalewski may think hes some sort of hero disclosing this information, but his is the act of a vandal. If it turns out that the bug is exploitable and abused before its patched, then perhaps hell be proud to be remembered for that. The best we can hope from it is not changes in Microsofts behavior, but that his bad example will deter others from doing the same.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog. More from Larry Seltzer

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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