There’s been a lot said in security circles about a talk on Tor being pulled from Blackhat. (Tor’s comments are also worth noting.) While that story is interesting, I think the bigger story is the lack of infrastructure for disclosure coordination.
Coordinating information about vulnerabilities is a socially important function. Coordination makes it possible for software creators to create patches and distribute them so that those with the software can most easily protect themselves.
In fact, the function is so important that it was part of why CERT was founded to: “coordinate response to internet security incidents.” Now, incidents has always been more than just vulnerabilities, but vulnerability coordination was a big part of what CERT did.
The trouble is, it’s not a big part anymore. [See below for a clarification added August 21.] Now “The CERT Division works closely with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to meet mutually set goals in areas such as data collection and mining, statistics and trend analysis, computer and network security, incident management, insider threat, software assurance, and more.” (Same “about” link as before.)
This isn’t the first time that I’ve heard about an issue where CERT wasn’t able to coordinate disclosure. I want to be clear, I’m not critiquing CERT or their funders here. They’ve set priorities and strategies in a way that makes sense to them, and as far as I know, there’s been precious little pressure to have a vuln coordination function.
It’s time we as a security community talk about the infrastructure, not as a flamewar over coordination/responsibility/don’t blow your 0day, but rather, for those who would like to coordinate, how should they do so?
Heartbleed is an example of what can happen with an interesting vulnerability and incomplete coordination. (Thanks to David Mortman for pointing that out in reviewing a draft.) Systems administrators woke up Monday morning to incomplete information, a marketing campaign, and a slew of packages that hadn’t been updated.
Disclosure coordination is hard to do. There’s a lot of project management and cross-organizational collaboration. Doing that work requires a special mix of patience and urgency, along with an unusual mix of technical skill with diplomatic communication. Those requirements mean that the people who do the work are rare and expensive. What’s more, it’s helpful to have these people seated at a relatively neutral party. (In the age of governments flooding money into cyberwar, it’s not clear if there are any truly neutral parties available. Some disclosure coordination is managed by big companies with a stake in the issue, which is helpful, but it’s hard for researchers to predict and depend apon.) These issues are magnified because those who are great at vulnerability research rarely spend time to develop those skills, and so an intermediary is even more valuable.
Even setting that aside, is there anyone who’s stepping up to the plate to help researchers effectively coordinate and manage disclosure?
[Update: I had a good conversation with some people at CERT/CC, in which I learned that they still do coordination work, especially in cases where the vendor is dealing with an issue for the first time, the issue is multi-vendor, or where there’s a conflict between vendor and researcher. The best way to do that is via their vulnerability reporting form, but if things don’t work, you can also email firstname.lastname@example.org or call their hotline (the number is on their contact us page.]
[Update 2, Dec 2014: Allen Householder has a really interesting model of “Vulnerability Coordination and Concurrency Modeling” on the CERT/CC blog, which shows some of the complexity involved, and touches on topics above. Oh, and some really neat Petri-dish state models.]