Is 90 Days Enough? Google Releases Details of Unpatched Microsoft Flaws

With Microsoft canceling an update on Feb. 14, the company missed patching two vulnerabilities in time to meet Google's 90-day deadline.

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For the second time in as many weekends, Google released details of a security issue in Microsoft’s software, which the Windows maker failed to patch after postponing the release of a regularly scheduled update on Feb. 14.

Google—which funds a group of researchers, known as Project Zero—publishes details of security flaws after giving the software vendors 90 days or less to fix the issues. Both of the vulnerabilities in Microsoft software were found last November and their details scheduled to be disclosed this month.

Microsoft typically releases software updates on the second Tuesday of the month, but scrapped plans for a February update—which would have landed on Valentine’s Day—when it detected an unspecified issue with the fixes.

“This month, we discovered a last minute issue that could impact some customers and was not resolved in time for our planned updates today,” the company stated in an advisory released on Feb. 14. “After considering all options, we made the decision to delay this month’s updates.”

Yet, Google did not stop its automated process of releasing vulnerability information—a process that is designed to pressure software vendors into fixing vulnerabilities within 90 days. Microsoft’s postponement took the company’s researchers by surprise.

“I will not make any further comments on exploitability, at least not until the bug is fixed,” Ivan Fratric, a Google researcher, commented in response to a question on the vulnerability report. “The report has too much info on that as it is [and] I really didn't expect this one to miss the deadline.”

Microsoft has missed Project Zero deadlines in the past. In January 2015, for example, the company criticized Google’s inflexibility after Google released details of a vulnerability two days before Microsoft patched it. A month later, Google defended itself, releasing statistics showing that 95 percent of vulnerabilities had been fixed within the 90-day period. More up-to-date statistics are not available. Google did not respond to a request for comment, but Microsoft provided a statement.

“We believe in coordinated vulnerability disclosure, as disclosing before a fix is released could put customers at potential risk,” the company stated through a spokesperson. “Microsoft has a customer commitment to investigate reported security issues and proactively update impacted devices as soon as possible.”

Ethical rules of disclosure have been debated for more than two decades. Some policies have advocated for 30-day grace periods, renewed as needed. The original RFPolicy 2.0, published in 2001 by Jeff “Rain Forest Puppy” Forristal, did not specify a time limit as long as the flaw finder and developer maintained a productive relationship. The CERT Coordination Center advocates a 45-day policy, which can be made longer or shorter as circumstances warrant.

The Zero Day Initiative, now part of security firm Trend Micro, typically gives companies 120 days to fix a vulnerability, based on its experiences over the past decade.

“During that time, we’ve seen the average shrink as well, so it’s a timeline constantly under review,” Dustin Childs, spokesman for Trend Micro’s Zero Day Initiative (ZDI), told eWEEK.

Childs said that ZDI is flexible with the timeline, adding that—while 90 days seems reasonable—different vendors may require different amounts of time.

“Ninety days may be reasonable to some, but rigid inflexibility from this standard can also seem unreasonable to others,” he said.

Like the original RFPolicy standard, ZDI is willing to work with a vendor as long as the vendor appears to be pursuing a fix in good faith. While Google’s hard deadlines are defensible, the debate will undoubtedly continue, Childs said.

“It’s a shared world,” he said. “A vulnerability in one product could affect a wide range of vendors, so it only makes sense that we check each other throughout the industry. As long as we work together instead of against each other, everyone can benefit through more secure software.”