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The Vulnerability Protection Racket

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. 


Review: The Limits of Privacy

It has been argued that, since the 1960’s, an emphasis on individualism and personal autonomy have shaped public policy debates, including debates about the right to personal privacy.  While many scholars and advocacy groups claim that privacy is under siege, an alternate view of privacy exists, one in which it is weighed against other public interests.  In The Limits of Privacy, Amitai Etzioni espouses a communitarian approach to determining the relative value and, as the title suggests, the limits of privacy.  Privacy, the author argues, is not an absolute right, but is a right that must be carefully measured against the “common good,” which for Etzioni is defined as public health and safety.  At the heart of this book is the question of if and when we are justified in implementing measures that diminish privacy in the service of the common good.

To answer this question and to identify criteria for evaluating the relative trade-offs between privacy and the common good, Etzioni examines several examples in which privacy, depicted as an individual right, is in conflict with societal responsibilities.  Five public policy issues—namely the HIV testing of newborn babies, Megan’s Laws, encryption and government wiretapping, biometric national ID cards, and the privacy of medical records—are examined in detail.  Through his analysis, Etzioni attempts to prove that, in most cases, champions of privacy have actually done more harm than good by stifling innovation and curbing necessary democratic discussions about privacy.  A notable exception is in the case of personal medical records:  The author notes that, while “Big Brother” is normally associated with privacy violation, in the case of medical records, unregulated private industry, which Etzioni aptly coins “Big Bucks,” is a pertinent and immediate threat.

Etzioni’s analysis, while flawed in several respects (e.g. Etzioni largely ignores evidence suggesting that national IDs will do more harm than good from a security perspective), results in four criteria that can be used in examining the tension between liberty and the public interest, or in this case privacy and public health and safety.  The four criteria are as follows:

  • First, society should take steps to limit privacy only if it faces a “well-documented and macroscopic threat” to the common good;
  • second that society should identify and try any and all means that do not endanger privacy before restricting privacy;
  • third, that privacy intrusions should have minimal impact;
  • and fourth, that the undesirable side effects of privacy violations for the common good are treated (i.e. if a patient’s medical record must be digitized and shared, the confidentiality of the record must be guaranteed).

The Limits of Privacy is necessary reading for anyone involved in accepting, shaping, debating, and enacting privacy policies, both at the organizational and public-policy level.  While many readers, including this reviewer, disagree with many of Etzioni’s proposed solutions to the problems he examines, his four criteria are useful for anyone attempting to understand the intricacies involved.  Likewise, while Etzioni’s views are contrary to many of his peers, whose arguments he credits in his analysis, his arguments for justifiable invasions of privacy are a useful foil for privacy advocates and a useful reminder that privacy issues will always present real and costly trade-offs.