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Full Disclosure: How Much Security Info Is Too Much?
From: InfoSec News <isn () c4i org>
Date: Tue, 2 Oct 2001 04:29:57 -0500 (CDT)


By Jay Lyman
NewsFactor Network 
October 1, 2001 

The debate over how much detail to release on software security gaps
and when to go public with potentially sensitive security information
has experts looking for a middle ground, wherein systems can be
secured without helping hackers.

The Code Red and Code Red II virus outbreaks, which capitalized on
vulnerabilities that were publicized before the viruses spread,
brought the debate front and center, but the issue presents a constant
challenge to those who hunt for vulnerabilities.

Administrators whose systems fell prey to Code Red and Code Red II
because they lacked the necessary security patches bore much of the
blame for the spread of the viruses. But when considering the bigger
picture and the vast numbers of vulnerabilities uncovered every day,
the situation becomes more complex, according to CERT vulnerability
handling team leader Sean Hernan.

"We are projecting 3,000 new vulnerabilities being publicly announced
this year," Hernan told NewsFactor Network. "We try to write clear
descriptions with the impact and solution, yet we still get complaints
on confusing advisories.

"3,000 vulnerabilities a year -- that's a good chunk of time just
trying to evaluate each and every one," he added. "You figure 3,000
times 20 minutes each -- that's 1,000 hours of work, that's half a
year of work."

Helping Hackers?

CERT, a center of Internet security expertise at Carnegie Mellon
University's Software Engineering Institute, adheres to a 45-day
"vulnerability disclosure policy" that puts a hold on security breach
information to give software vendors a chance to come up with a patch.

Experts agree that advisories, by their very nature, may be a heads-up
to hackers. eEye Security came under fire for disclosing the Code Red
vulnerability in June before Microsoft had released a patch for the
hole, and again for releasing detailed information after Code Red was
controlled, which some blamed for the success of the Code Red II

eEye chief hacking officer Marc Maiffret defended the disclosure,
telling NewsFactor that almost all advisories -- whether from
individuals or companies -- are irrelevant to hackers.

"It wasn't like we gave a blueprint," Maiffret said. "It doesn't make
it easier or harder [for hackers]. A lot of these guys have tools that
they can use to find [vulnerabilities] real quickly. They're basically
using the same tools we use."

Need To Know

Maiffret claims the majority of security experts support full

"It's important for security companies and for researchers to find
these [security holes] and have people support them when they do,"
Maiffret said.

McAfee Avert senior director Vincent Gullotto, who said that antivirus
experts are now working more closely with security experts in response
to the crossover between software holes and exploitative computer
worms, told NewsFactor that staying updated on security
vulnerabilities and patches is as important as updating antivirus

Disclosure's Downside

However, Gullotto said there are concerns that some advisories go too
far and help those with malicious intent.

"I'm not sure we're in favor of complete and full disclosure,"
Gullotto told NewsFactor. "To include detail down to the last byte can
make it easier for someone to go write a threat."

CERT's Hernan said there are two extremes in the debate, but that to
provide an "exploit" or code that demonstrates the security breach
along with disclosure of the hole goes beyond what is necessary to
secure a system.

"I think that there are many better indicators of whether you're
vulnerable," Hernan said. "You don't need to destroy your own system
to find out if it's vulnerable."

The Middle Line

There are no rules that govern how much time to give a software vendor
to come up with a patch. But Hernan defended large software companies
that must take the time to track down the right people and fully
investigate security breaches in their products.

However, the vulnerability expert also criticized vendors for shipping
products with well-known weaknesses, adding that they should be held
more accountable.

CERT's Hernan, who calls the center's 45-day policy a "middle line in
terms of time," told NewsFactor that there is also a middle line for
how much information is included in an advisory.

"It's not in anybody's best interest to withhold vulnerabilities," he
said. "Description and remedial information is important for the
public at large, but technical, detailed information is important for
security experts. The real nuts-and-bolts probably isn't necessarily
useful to the average network administrator."

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