Nobody really knows where worm authors go shopping for exploits to develop, but its widely assumed that they are greatly assisted by exploit code released by legitimate researchers.
Go look at most vulnerability reports, and youll see references to where exploit code may be obtained. Why would a “legitimate” researcher do such a thing?
If you think about how youd want to run security management at a large organization with some time and budget behind it, its not hard to see how exploit code is valuable. We—meaning vendors and researchers and media—tell you to test patches before installing them on the production network.
Of course, a lot of you would get laughed at by your bosses if you proposed creating a test network, but assume you were testing a patch before deploying it. You would want to test your software with the patch installed to make sure it still worked correctly, but youd also want to test the patch to make sure it worked correctly.
For this, you need exploit code. You could also use it to test workarounds in case you dont want to deploy the patch immediately. Finally, you cant just trust your perimeter defenses, so you need exploit code to run penetration tests, also known as “pentests.”
Of course, if youre a malicious “script kiddie” looking to impress your fellow vandals, canned exploit code makes your “job” a lot easier. This was the conclusion of Johnny Cyberpunk, a researcher at The Hackers Choice. Mr. Cyberpunk recently announced that he will “personally not publish any further exploits to the public.”
The basic story for Mr. C was that the legitimate uses “didnt work.” He doesnt explain how they failed, although he does say many users didnt know how to do the customization necessary to make exploit code work correctly. And he saw too much risk of it being used for untoward purposes.
Code for Legit People
What if a trend develops and exploit code becomes harder for legit people to get? I can see law getting involved in this, too, at least trying to track who obtains exploit code. Turns out there may be a middle ground. There are pay services through which you can get exploit code. One is The Immunity Vulnerability Sharing Club from Immunity Inc. VulnDisco is another.
Of course, if youre running an eight-user network for a nonprofit organization, youre not going to get the money to pay for such a service. But youre probably also not going to be testing exploit code, so I dont completely buy any elitism arguments.
There are also “free speech” arguments that get made, but I dont think they are operative here, at least unless the government really does get involved. The main point isnt whether people should be allowed to publish exploit code, but whether its a good idea to do so. Clearly, its a tradeoff.
Overall, I think its got to be made harder to write attacks, and making it harder to get exploit code is one way to do that. Look at the latest round of Microsoft patches. The worms began to appear just about two weeks after the vulnerabilities were announced and patches released. Its not easy to write exploit code for a lot of these attacks. The harder we make it, the longer users get to test and patch.
So, I hope more researchers take Johnny Cyberpunks lead and stop leaving low-hanging fruit for malware writers. Theres a middle ground to be found that serves the interests of both researchers and users while frustrating the bad guys. Lets try to find it.
Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.
Be sure to add our eWEEK.com security news feed to your RSS newsreader or My Yahoo page:
More from Larry Seltzer