[ISN] Who's To Blame For Insecure Software? Maybe You

From: InfoSec News (alerts@private)
Date: Tue Jun 05 2007 - 22:30:56 PDT


By Larry Greenemeier
June 5, 2007

The recent observation that companies buying software are unaware of 95% 
of the bugs contained therein places the well-worn argument about the 
value of security vulnerability research in a new light. Are security 
researchers, who spend much of their time finding flaws in others' 
programming efforts and are often the bane of software vendors, doing 
enough? And do software consumers escape blame for shoddy products put 
on the market?

Attendees at the Gartner IT security summit keynote session Tuesday 
responded to an instant poll indicating that most of them, 57% of the 
340 people present, believe that vulnerability labs set up by security 
researchers are a useful public service, while 22%, or 75 people, think 
they're a distraction that forces them to patch more often.

Yet there's not consensus on how much information to disclose or when to 
disclose it. The discovery of a security vulnerability in a piece of 
software is in many ways like seeing that the front door to your 
neighbor's house has been left open, David Maynor, chief technology 
officer of Errata Security, said Tuesday. The options are calling the 
neighbor right away and alerting them to the open door, inspecting the 
neighbor's house (helping yourself to some of their food and trying on 
their clothes in the process) before calling them, or calling all of the 
other neighbors on the block to tell them about the neighbor's open 
door. An even more nefarious option is to close the neighbor's door but 
leave it unlocked so that the house can be entered some time in the 
future. In software terms, that pretty much sums up the spectrum that 
includes discrete disclosure of software vulnerabilities to the 
software's maker, full disclosure of the vulnerabilities to the public 
Internet, and no disclosure at all.

Different researchers take a different approach. Maynor, for example, 
says he gives the software vendor a month to fix its software 
vulnerability before he reports the flaw publicly. "We'll give you 30 
days to fix a bug, that's it," he said. Thomas Ptacek, the principal of 
Matasano Security and a member of the Tuesday morning keynote panel, 
said he's willing to wait until the software maker makes its own 
decision to publicly disclose a vulnerability before he publishes his 

One sentiment that's been floated is for software vendors, or internal 
software developers, to be held liable for flaws in their products that 
lead to intrusions into their customers' -- or their own -- networks and 
breaches of data found there. The concept of spending the time and money 
to write secure programs is a difficult one for company executives on 
the business side to accept, as it means possibly extending deadlines 
for deployment, lowering margins on products, or passing along the 
higher costs to customers. But it's worth it for companies to consider 
paying extra attention to the security of the programs they write, when 
you consider the cost of fixing a bug once an application is shipped and 
in use can be up to 100 times more expensive than identifying the 
problem during the development phase, Chris Wysopal, chief technology 
officer for Veracode and the third member of the Tuesday morning keynote 
panel, said.

There was no consensus as to how much money to spend on measures 
required to write more secure applications. Whereas Maynor believes that 
companies should consider spending as much as 25% of the cost of the 
total project on security, Ptacek puts the figure at closer to 10%. 
Maynor reasoned that internal applications must be secured to defend 
companies against insiders and intruders who are able penetrate a 
company's outer defenses.

Still, security researchers aren't so quick to heap all of the blame on 
software vendors. Those who've properly configured their firewalls and 
kept their software patches up to date are much less likely to become 
victim of a data breach, Maynor said. In April, Microsoft issued an 
advisory warning users of a vulnerability in its Domain Name System 
Server Service that potentially allowed an attacker to execute code 
remotely in Windows environments. Although an exploit was published to 
take advantage of this problem, "it was found that if you had your 
firewall properly configured, it wouldn't have been an issue," Maynor 

Another Gartner poll taken during the session indicated that, when the 
Microsoft Windows Domain Name Service flaw was revealed in August, 2006, 
that 30% of attendees waited for Microsoft's patch, while 20% disabled 
the Remote Procedure Call, or RPC, management interface used by the DNS 
service. Only 7% tried a non-Microsoft patch. Most disturbing, 23% were 
unfamiliar with the DNS flaw.

Software consumers have a responsibility to test the security of the 
products they buy prior to implementation, the panel agreed. If more 
software vendors thought their customers did this, they'd be compelled 
to provide a higher quality product in the first place. Microsoft has 
gotten a lot of credit for improving both the security of its products 
and the process by which those products are patched, but it's not hard 
to figure out why. "Microsoft found religion because they knew that they 
had a lot of security researchers looking at their product," Ptacek 

If market scrutiny can change the direction of a company the size of 
Microsoft, there's no reason other software vendors can't be made to 
fall in line.

Copyright 2007 CMP Media LLC

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