Black Hat 2010: Researchers to debate responsible bug disclosure

How researchers report vulnerabilities - and how companies react to those reports - may be one of the briskest topics at this week's Black Hat security conference.


How researchers report vulnerabilities - and how companies react to those reports - may be one of the briskest topics at this week's Black Hat security conference.

The debate isn't new - researchers and vendors have quarrelled over bug reporting philosophies for as long as the former have found bugs in the latter's software - but the subject kicked into a higher gear last month.

That was when Tavis Ormandy, a security researcher employed byGoogle, went public with a critical Windows bug just five days after reporting it to Microsoft. Ormandy said he disclosed the vulnerability when the company wouldn't commit to a patching deadline; Microsoft has disputed that, claiming that it only told Ormandy it would need the rest of that week to decide.

Whether it was a breakdown in communications between the two parties or a misunderstanding, Ormandy's publication of attack code for a Windows XP vulnerability - since patched by Microsoft - unleashed a heated debate.

Some security researchers criticised Ormandy for taking the bug public, while others rose to his defence, blasting both Microsoft and the press - including Computerworld - for linking Ormandy to his employer.

"The upsetting trend, which I imagine has been keeping security companies playing along with Microsoft's silly game, is for Microsoft to call into question the ethics of the reporter, and even if that reporter was acting independently, tying that question of ethics to the reporter's employer," wrote researcher Brad Spengler in an epistle to the Dailydave security mailing list .

Spengler later declined to be interviewed by Computerworld.

But his post was influential: It was widely circulated among security researchers and rekindled the conversation about the Ormandy-Microsoft incident, as well as the larger conversation about when and how bug finders report their discoveries, and how vendors react to those reports.

For years, the debate has been between two concepts: "full disclosure" and "responsible disclosure."

In the former, researchers release information about a vulnerability when they see fit, or after a vendor balks at or delays a patch. The logic: When a bug goes public, companies fix flaws faster under the pressure, which may include the fact that the publication of the flaw has led to actual attacks.

"It's been shown that vendors can move much quicker when there's an exploitation in the wild," said Dino Dai Zovi, a security researcher who will be presenting Thursday at Black Hat.

Responsible disclosure, on the other hand, holds researchers on a tighter rein. Under that philosophy, a researcher privately reports a bug to the software maker - or to some other organization that reports the vulnerability for them - then waits for the developer to patch it before publishing details and exploit proof-of-concept code.

It's no surprise that Microsoft, and virtually all other software makers, have touted the latter as safer for customers and makes for more reliable patches.

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