NGS Software to Cease All Future Work With CERT

Firm unhappy with group's advance vulnerability information policy.

A prominent security vendor that is well-known for finding dangerous vulnerabilities in software said last week that it will no longer work with the CERT Coordination Center after becoming disillusioned with the organizations policy of giving some people advance notice of new vulnerabilities.

Researchers at Next Generation Security Software Ltd., in Surrey, England, were angered when a representative from a software vendor told them that CERT had a policy of providing advance information on vulnerabilities to some organizations and government agencies, which pay for this service. The service is part of a partnership CERT has with the Internet Security Alliance.

Mark Litchfield, co-founder of NGS Software, said he had been unaware of the policy and was unhappy that CERT was collecting money for research that his company had done. While he acknowledged that CERT is a nonprofit organization, Litchfield disputed its right to charge for others work. "My problem is that we provide CERT with this information with the sole view to using their own database of security alert subscribers to help the administrator of a corporate network become aware of the situation [and] the impact it has to them with the hope that there would be an increase in the uptake of patching," Litchfield said. "I do not wish to help them in any fashion profiting from our hard research. We dont even profit from it. Why should they?"

CERT, based at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, is partially funded by the federal government and serves as an independent clearinghouse for vulnerability and threat information. Its database of vulnerabilities is one of the most comprehensive anywhere. CERT officials said that their vulnerability-disclosure policy hasnt changed in more than two years and that they have made it clear to vendors and anyone who asks.

"It shouldnt have been a surprise to him. Our policy is on our site," said Jeffrey Carpenter, manager of the CERT Coordination Center. "Were a nonprofit organization, and the government doesnt feel that all of our funding should come from them because the industry gets a benefit from our work, too."

Security researchers routinely provide CERT with advance notification of flaws, typically at the same time they notify affected vendors. Publication of vendor bulletins is often timed to coincide with the release of a CERT advisory and the researchers own bulletin.

The question of when and how to release vulnerability information is the subject of much debate in the security community. Vendors and some researchers favor controlled releases through organizations such as CERT, which, they argue, help reduce the chances of crackers getting vulnerability information before a patch is available. Other researchers choose to release information on their own, some without contacting affected vendors.

Litchfields company has trod the middle ground, contacting vendors but sometimes releasing information before a patch is ready if the vendor fails to react in a timely manner.

NGS Software is best known for hunting down buffer overruns, often in popular products from Microsoft Corp. and Oracle Corp. In fact, the company last July discovered the vulnerability that the SQL Slammer worm exploits.

Litchfield said he offered to work with CERT under a mutual nondisclosure agreement, which CERT officials declined to do. He said that in the future, NGS Software will only work directly with the vendors affected by the vulnerabilities his company finds.