Missing Perspective on the Closure of the Full-Disclosure Mail List

This morning I woke to the news that the Full-Disclosure mail list was closing its doors. Assuming this is not a hoax (dangerously close to April 1st) and not spoofed mail that somehow got through, there seems to be perspective missing on the importance of this event. Via Facebook posts and Twitter I see casual disappointment, insults that the list was low signal to noise, and that many had stopped reading it a while back. I don’t begrudge the last comment one bit. The list has certainly had its share of noise, but that is the price we pay as a community and industry for having a better source for vulnerability disclosure. Speaking to the point of mail lists specifically, there were three lists that facilitated this: Bugtraq, Full-Disclosure, and Open Source Security (OSS). Bugtraq has been around the longest and is the only alternative to Full-Disclosure really (remember that VulnWatch didn’t last, and was ultimately low traffic). OSS is a list that caters to open source software and does not traffic in commercial software. A majority of the posts come from open source vendors (e.g. Linux distributions), the software’s maintainer, etc. It is used as much for disclosure as coordination between vendors and getting a CVE assigned.

One of the first things that should be said is a sincere “thank you” to John Cartwright for running the list so long. For those of you who have not moderated a list, especially a high-traffic list, it is no picnic. The amount of spam alone makes list moderation a pain in the ass. Add to that the fake exploits, discussions that devolve into insults, and topics that are on the fringe of the list’s purpose. Trying to sort out which should be allowed becomes more difficult than you would think. More importantly, he has done it in a timely manner for so long. Read the bold part again, because that is absolutely critical here. When vulnerability information goes out, it is important that it goes out to everyone equally. Many mails sent to Bugtraq and Full-Disclosure are also sent to other parties at the same time. For example, every day we get up to a dozen mails to the OSVDB Moderators with new vulnerability information, and those lists and other sources (e.g. Exploit-DB, OffSec, 1337day) are in the CC. If you use one or a few of those places as your primary source for vulnerability intelligence, you want that information as fast as anyone else. A mail sent on Friday afternoon may hit just one of them, before appearing two days later on the rest. This is due to the sites being run with varying frequency, work schedules, and dedication. Cartwright’s quick moderation made sure those mails went out quickly, often at all hours of the day and over weekends.

While many vulnerability disclosers will send to multiple sources, you cannot assume that every disclosure will hit every source. Some of these sites specialize in a type of vulnerability (e.g. web-based), while some accept most but ignore a subset (e.g. some of the more academic disclosures). Further, not every discloser sends to all these sources. Many will send to a single mail list (e.g. Bugtraq or FD), or to both of them. This is where the problem arises. For many of the people still posting to the two big disclosure lists, they are losing out on the list that was basically guaranteed to post their work. Make no mistake, that isn’t the case for both lists.

This goes back to why Full-Disclosure was created in the first place (July 11, 2002). This was days before Symantec announced they were acquiring SecurityFocus (July 17, 2002). That was not a coincidence. While I can’t put a finger on when BugTraq changed for the worse exactly, I can assure you it has. Back in 2003, security researchers were noticing curious delays in their information being posted. One company challenged SecurityFocus/Bugtraq publicly, forcing them to defend themselves.

“The problem with SecurityFocus is not that they moderate the lists, but the fact that they deliberately delay and partially censor the information,” said Thomas Kristensen, CTO of Secunia, based in Copenhagen, Denmark. “Since they were acquired by Symantec they changed their policy regarding BugTraq. Before they used to post everything to everybody at the same time. Now they protect the interests of Symantec, delay information and inform their customers in advance.” Wong says there is no truth to these accusations. “The early warnings that our DeepSight customers get come from places like BugTraq and events and incidents that we monitor,” Wong said. “We dont give those alerts [from BugTraq] to our customers any sooner than anyone else gets them.”

Unfortunately for our community, Mr. Wong is absolutely incorrect. I have witnessed this behavior first hand several times over the years, as have others. From a series of mails in 2006:

* mudge (mudge @ uidzero org) [060120 20:04]:
Actually, this advisory is missing some important information. bugtraq engaged in this prior to the “buy out”. Security Focus engaged in this practice as well where there were some advisories that would go out only to the Security Focus paid private list and not be forwarded to the public list to which they were posted.

On Fri, 20 Jan 2006, H D Moore wrote:
FWIW, I have noticed that a few of my own BT posts will not reach my mailbox until they have already been added to the securityfocus.com BID database. It could be my subscriber position in the delivery queue, but it does seem suspicious sometimes. Could just be paranoia, but the list behavior/delivery delays definitely contribute to it.

In each case, moderators of Bugtraq vehemently denied the allegations. In one case, Al Huger (with Symantec at the time) reminded everyone that the combined lists of SecurityFocus were delivering over 7 million mails a day. That alone can cause issues in delivery of course. On the other hand, Symantec surely has the resources to ensure they run a set of mail servers that can churn out mail in such volume to ensure prompt delivery. Jump to more recently and you can still see incredible delay that has nothing to do with delivery issues. For example, RBS posted an advisory simultaneously to both Bugtraq and Full-Disclosure. Notice that the mail was posted on Sep 10 for Full-Disclosure and Sep 19 for Bugtraq. A nine day delay in moderating vulnerability information is not acceptable in today’s landscape of threats and bad actors. Regardless of intent, such delays simply don’t cut it.

In addition to the Bugtraq moderators having such delays, they will sometimes reject a post for trivial reasons such as “using a real IP address” in an example (one time using the vendor’s IP, another time using a public IP I control). They rejected those posts, while frequently allowing “target.com” in disclosures which is a real company.

With the death of Full-Disclosure, Bugtraq is now our primary source of vulnerability disclosure in the scope of mail lists, and only source for vulnerabilities in commercial software (out of scope for OSS). To those who argue that people “use mail a lot less now”, I suggest you look at the volume of Bugtraq, Full-Disclosure, and OSS. That is a considerable amount of disclosures made through that mechanism. Another mindset is that disclosing vulnerabilities can be done with a Tweet using a hash tag and a link to pastebin or other hosting site. To this I can quickly say that you have never run a VDB (and try finding a full set of your original l0pht or @stake advisories, many have largely vanished). Pastebin dumps are routinely removed. Researcher blogs, even hosted on free services such as WordPress and Blogger, disappear routinely. Worse, vendors that host advisories in their own products will sometimes remove their own historical advisories. The “Tweet + link” method simply does not cut it unless you want vulnerability provenance to vanish in large amounts. It is bad enough that VDBs have to rely on the Internet Archive so often (speaking of, donate to them!), but forcing us to set up a system to mirror all original disclosures is a burden. Last, for those who argue that nothing good is posted to Full-Disclosure, Lucian Constantin points out a couple good examples to counter the argument in his article on the list closing.

Instead, mail lists provide an open distributed method for releasing information. As you can see, these lists are typically mirrored on multiple sites as well as personal collections of incoming email. It is considerably easier and safer to use such a method for vulnerability disclosures going forward. In my eyes, and the eyes of others that truly appreciate what Full-Disclosure has done, the loss of that list is devastating in the short term. Not only will it introduce a small amount of bias in vulnerability aggregation, it will take time to recover. Even if someone else picks up the torch under the same name, or starts a new list to replace it, it will take time for people to transition to the new list.

To conclude, I would also ask that John Cartwright practice full disclosure himself. Shuttering the list is one thing, but blaming the action on an unnamed person with no real details isn’t what the spirit of the list is about. Give us details in a concise and factual manner, so that the industry can better understand what you are facing and what they may be getting into should they opt to run such a list.

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4 responses

  1. Here is a perfect opportunity for one of the umpteenmillion security companies to fund a full disclosure type mailing list. Simply pay an employee to handle the spam, fake posts etc and have a thick skin to weather the DMCA take downs and lawsuits. The funding would have to be hands off to avoid charges of favoritism but someone could earn a lot of goodwill with very little cash.

  2. Good post.

  3. John is old and tired. He said he was “forced” to close it but that isn’t true as he later said he didn’t want to deal with it. The little French cry baby was just an excuse for him to get out it. I can’t blame him and I appreciate what he did.
    The timing seems right. Nothing of value is disclosed anymore. Just after the fact announcements.

  4. Not to mention that monitoring those lists pay such a fabulous salary! I can’t believe anyone would walk away from such a steady paycheck!

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