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Purdue University - Discovery Park
Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security

The Vulnerability Protection Racket

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TippingPoint’s Zero Day Initiative (ZDI) gives interesting data.  TippingPoint’s ZDI has made public its “disclosure pipeline” on August 28, 2006.  As of today, it has 49 vulnerabilities from independent researchers, which have been waiting on average 114 days for a fix.  There are also 12 vulnerabilities from TippingPoint’s researchers as well.  With those included, the average waiting time for a fix is 122 days, or about 4 months!  Moreover, 56 out of 61 are high severity vulnerabilities.  These are from high profile vendors: Microsoft, HP, Novell, Apple, IBM Tivoli, Symantec, Computer Associates, Oracle…  Some high severity issues have been languishing for more than 9 months.

Hum.  ZDI is supposed to be a “best-of-breed model for rewarding security researchers for responsibly disclosing discovered vulnerabilities. ”  How is it responsible to take 9 months to fix a known but secret high severity vulnerability?  It’s not directly ZDI’s fault that the vendors are taking so long, but then it’s not providing much incentive either to the vendors.  This suggests that programs like ZDI’s have a pernicious effect.  They buy the information from researchers, who are then forbidden from disclosing the vulnerabilities.  More vulnerabilities are found due to the monetary incentive, but only people paying for protection services have any peace of mind.  The software vendors don’t care much, as the vulnerabilities remain secret.  The rest of us are worse off than before because more vulnerabilities remain secret for an unreasonable length of time.

Interestingly, this is what was predicted several years ago in “Market for Software Vulnerabilities?  Think Again” (2005) Kannan K and Telang R, Management Science 51, pp. 726-740.  The model predicted worse social consequences from these programs than no vulnerability handling at all due to races with crackers, increased vulnerability volume, and unequal protection of targets.  This makes another conclusion of the paper interesting and likely valid:  CERT/CC offering rewards to vulnerability discoverers should provide the best outcomes, because information would be shared systematically and equally.  I would add that CERT/CC is also in a good position to find out if a vulnerability is being exploited in the wild, in which case it can release an advisory and make vulnerability information public sooner.  A vendor like TippingPoint has a conflict of interest in doing so, because it decreases the value of their protection services.

I tip my hat to TippingPoint for making their pipeline information public.  However, because they provide no deadlines to vendors or incentives for responsibly patching the vulnerabilities, the very existence of their services and similar ones from other vendors are hurting those who don’t subscribe.  That’s what makes vulnerability protection services a racket. 

 

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