Security Firm May Stay Mum

By Paul F. Roberts  |  Posted 2005-08-08 Print this article Print

The security research company responsible for discovering a software hole later used by the Slammer worm is considering an end to its policy of publishing details of vulnerabilities to public forums.

The security research company responsible for discovering a software hole later used by the Slammer worm is considering an end to its policy of publishing details of vulnerabilities to public forums.

Next Generation Security Software Ltd., a Surrey, England, company founded by brothers David and Mark Litchfield, is weighing a change that would keep details of software vulnerabilities between NGS and the software vendor affected.

The change in policy, which is still under consideration, comes amid heightened debate about the practices of independent security researchers after a former employee of Internet Security Systems Inc. revealed details of a serious hole in Cisco Systems Inc.s Internet Operating System, which is run by many of the machines that make up the Internets critical infrastructure.

Click here to read about Ciscos attempt to gag former ISS researcher Michael Lynn from publicizing his discovery at the Black Hat conference. The "no-disclosure" policy, as the Litchfields call it, would be a marked departure from the policy of full disclosure NGS followed just three years ago, when David revealed details of a months-old patched vulnerability in Microsoft Corp.s SQL Server database at Black Hat Inc.s Black Hat USA Briefings conference.

Within months of that talk, content from Davids talk was used to create the SQL Slammer Internet worm, which spread worldwide in a matter of minutes and is credited with disrupting banking, airline, health care and emergency response systems.

Speaking with eWEEK at the Black Hat conference here last month, David said that arguments in favor of disclosing details of software holes have lost force in recent years. At the same time, the threats to organizations and individuals on the Internet from organized cyber-crime syndicates and international terrorists have increased.

"What was valid two or three years ago isnt valid anymore," David said.

Independent researchers, including the Litchfields, have argued that disclosing details of security vulnerabilities is the only way to raise awareness about poor software development practices that create vulnerabilities, as well as to force the hand of software vendors to fix the problems.

But David wonders whether those arguments carry water.

"How many times do you have to teach people about buffer overflows? If people arent educated [about buffer overflows] by now, theyre never going to be," David said.

In the wake of the Slammer worm, NGS changed its disclosure policy. NGS now notifies companies of the holes it discovers and gives them time to create a patch and 90 days to distribute it before releasing vulnerability details to the public.

NGS has run afoul of software vendors for its security research before. In March, Sybase Inc., in Dublin, Calif., threatened to sue the company for publicizing information about Sybases Adaptive Server Enterprise product.

Read more here about the tiff between Sybase and NGS and how it was resolved. More recently, efforts by Cisco, of San Jose, Calif., to quash a presentation by ISS researcher Michael Lynn at the Black Hat conference also fanned the flames of controversy within the software industry over full disclosure of vulnerability information.

Paul Holman, a security researcher and co-founder of The Shmoo Group, said that the work of security researchers can be a lightning rod for friction between technology vendors interested in selling products and customers that maintain computer infrastructures that can be attacked and that often appreciate information about how vulnerabilities work.

"These are different parties that have different interests," Holman said.

This story was corrected to indicate that the Microsoft SQL vulnerability referenced by David Litchfield had been patched when he discussed it publicly at the Black Hat USA Briefings conference. 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.

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