Security Quandary: Whos Liable?

By Chris Gonsalves  |  Posted 2002-02-25 Print this article Print

Skittish at the prospect of being held liable for security breaches, software vendors are examining ways to get ahead of problems with solutions ranging from restrictive user agreements to forced security patches.

Skittish at the prospect of being held liable for security breaches, software vendors are examining ways to get ahead of problems with solutions ranging from restrictive user agreements to forced security patches.

The movement is in response to a growing sense that lawsuits will be the next tool used to counter expensive security problems such as the Code Red and Nimda worms, according to industry insiders.

"Whose responsibility is the long tail of infections that goes on after the initial explosion of activity with something like Nimda?" asked Dan Geer, chief technology officer at @Stake Inc., a security consulting company based in Cambridge, Mass.

@Stake last week released a report showing that 70 percent of the security defects found in an analysis of its customers networks were the result of software design flaws. "Applications are our current biggest security risk. Automatic security updates [could be] made part of the license agreement as a way to address that," Geer said.

To that end, Microsoft Corp., of Redmond, Wash., is looking for a way to automatically distribute patches to enterprise customers, much the same way home users get automated updates for Windows XP. Such a system could push patches to customers, who could test them before installing them.

The goal, Microsoft executives said, is to get the patches into customers hands as quickly and easily as possible because enterprise users arent getting the job done on their own.

"As much as possible, our dream is to get to these automated updates for high-threat vulnerabilities, said Craig Mundie, CTO for advanced strategies and policies at Microsoft, in an interview at the RSA conference here last week. "And that would extend not only to customers who have broadband connections on machines at home but ultimately would be a fully automated process for the enterprise."

"The dream is that you could actually get a patch propagation rate thats faster than a virus propagation rate," Mundie said.

But, theres no guarantee that users will install a patch, even if its pushed to them. That raises the question of whether network operators might also bear some of the liability.

According to White House Cybersecurity Czar Richard Clarke, who spoke to security professionals at RSA, both sides should share the responsibility and the potential liability. Clarke complained that while vendors say users are not interested in paying a premium for products with enhanced security, users say they want secure products but the vendors dont offer them.

"Both sides have to get with it ... or be prepared to pay the price," said Clarke, who estimates that U.S. companies spent $2 billion cleaning up Nimda last summer. That worm took advantage of a known flaw in a Microsoft product for which patches had been available for months.

Some users said a mechanism for holding parties financially liable for security matters could give them added leverage, but many said there are too many obstacles to such a system. Most said they felt the responsibility remains with software makers.

"I dont think [holding network owners liable] will fly," said a security administrator at a large East Coast financial institution, who requested anonymity. "How about [if vendors] take the time to write and release secure code?"

@Stakes Geer said a number of software vendors are mulling clauses to license agreements to shift more responsibility to the user. The best way to do that, he said, is to include a requirement for accepting fixes. Refusal would void the warranty.

Mundie said Microsoft is aware of the power of licensing pacts, but it is treading lightly for now. "If you stand in our shoes, we get enough flak just trying to get people to register their software," he said.

Yogesh Gupta, CTO at Computer Associates International Inc., of Islandia, N.Y., said the way vulnerabilities are reported could have a dramatic and confusing effect on who gets held responsible for attacks. "I hate to even speculate on this stuff," Gupta said. "Im not a lawyer."


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