Feds Consider New Security Reporting Role

Government officials are discussing the possibility of creating a single point of contact within the federal government to help handle vulnerability reporting.

As part of a continuing effort to find a way to handle sensitive security vulnerabilities, government security officials have been discussing the possibility of creating a central point of contact within the government for reporting such information.

Under the scenario officials have discussed, researchers who find a new vulnerability would be encouraged to send their findings to the government contact at the same time that they notify the affected vendor, according to sources familiar with the discussions. The benefits of such a system are two-fold, experts say. Not only would it ensure that the researcher is given proper credit for his findings, but it would also serve as a fall-back position should the vendors affected by the vulnerability fail to acknowledge the report or take any action to fix it.

Many security researchers have been critical of large software vendors such as Microsoft Corp. and others for what the researchers perceive as unreasonably slow reaction times once they are told of a new vulnerability. This, in part, has led some researchers to begin posting their findings on public mailing lists or Web sites in an effort to pressure the vendors into patching the vulnerabilities.

Government security officials, most notably Richard Clarke, chairman of the Presidents Critical Infrastructure Protection Board, have decried this practice as irresponsible and damaging to both users. Clarke on several occasions has called on researchers to notify his office if they are meeting resistance from vendors on vulnerability reports.

Some researchers say the idea of having a single point of contact within the federal government for vulnerability reporting could help alleviate some of these problems. "I think a program like this would help with non-responsive vendors," said Chris Wysopal, director of research and development at @stake Inc., a security research firm and consultancy based in Cambridge, Mass. However, Wysopal questioned how much detail researchers should give the government in their notifications.

"I worry if researchers are required to give details. In the past we have seen instances where [the National Infrastructure Protection Center at the FBI] has tried to coordinate notifying vendors which has led to premature leaks of information," said Wysopal, who is also involved in the Organization for Internet Safety, which is developing a set of best practices for researchers and vendors to follow in vulnerability reporting and handling.

"This happened in the case of the SNMP vulnerability [in February]. There is always the temptation to use information once you have it."

Sources familiar with the governments thinking on this issue say that the proposal is still just in the discussion phase, mainly due to the uncertainty surrounding the passage of the bill authorizing the Department of Homeland Security. Nearly all of the governments security organizations would be consolidated under this new department if and when it is created.

"I think if it wasnt in the middle of a reorganization, it would be yes, yes, yes," said one source who has participated in some of the discussions. "It would be a slam dunk. It just makes too much sense not to happen."