Microsoft’s latest plea for CVD is as much propaganda as sincere.

Earlier today, Chris Betz, senior director of the Microsoft Security Response Center (MSRC), posted a blog calling for “better coordinated vulnerability disclosure“.

Before I begin a rebuttal of sorts, let me be absolutely clear. The entire OSVDB team is very impressed with Microsoft’s transition over the last decade as far as security response goes. The MSRC has evolved and matured greatly, which is a benefit to both Microsoft and their customers world-wide. This post is not meant to undermine their efforts at large, rather to point out that since day one, propaganda is still a valuable tool for the company. I will preface this with a reminder that this is not a new issue. I have personally blogged about this as far back as 2001, after Scott Culp (Microsoft at the time) wrote a polarizing piece about “information anarchy” that centered around disclosure issues. At some point Microsoft realized this was a bad position to take and that it didn’t endear them to the researchers providing free vulnerability information to them. Despite that, it took almost ten years for Microsoft to drop the term “responsible” disclosure (also biased against researchers) in favor of “coordinated” disclosure. Again, Microsoft has done a phenomenal job advancing their security program, especially the last three to five years. But… it is on the back of a confrontational policy toward researchers.

Reading yesterday’s blog, there are bits and pieces that stand out to me for various reasons. It is easy to gloss over many of these if you aren’t a masochist and spend most of your waking time buried in vulnerability aggregation and related topics.

In terms of the software industry at large and each player’s responsibility, we believe in Coordinated Vulnerability Disclosure (CVD).

Not sure I have seen “CVD” as a formal initialism until now, which is interesting. After trying to brand “information anarchy” and pushing the “responsible disclosure” term, good to see you embrace a better term.

Ultimately, vulnerability collaboration between researchers and vendors is about limiting the field of opportunity so customers and their data are better protected against cyberattacks.

And this line, early on in the blog, demonstrates you do not live in the real world of vulnerability disclosure. Microsoft has enjoyed their ‘ivory’ tower so to speak. Many researchers find and disclose vulnerabilities for entirely selfish reasons (e.g. bug bounties), which you basically do not offer. Yes, you have a bounty program, but it is very different from most and does not reward a vast majority of vulnerabilities reported to you. Microsoft has done well in creating a culture of “report vulnerabilities to us for free for the honor of being mentioned in one of our advisories”. And I get that! Being listed as a creditee in a Microsoft advisory is advertising itself as far as researcher talent. However… you are talking about a minority of researchers in the greater picture, that chase that honor.

Those in favor of full, public disclosure believe that this method pushes software vendors to fix vulnerabilities more quickly and makes customers develop and take actions to protect themselves. We disagree.

Oh sorry, let me qualify, your black and white tower. This absolutely does work for some vendors, especially those who have a poor history in dealing with vulnerability reports. You may not be one of them for the last 10 years, but you once were. Back in the late ’90s, Microsoft had a reputation for being horrible when dealing with researchers. No vulnerability disclosure policy, no bug bounty (even five years after Netscape had implemented one), and no standard process for receiving and addressing reports. Yes, you have a formal and mature process now, but many of us in the industry remember your beginnings.

It is necessary to fully assess the potential vulnerability, design and evaluate against the broader threat landscape, and issue a “fix” before it is disclosed to the public, including those who would use the vulnerability to orchestrate an attack.

This is a great point. But, let’s read on and offer some context using your own words…

Of the vulnerabilities privately disclosed through coordinated disclosure practices and fixed each year by all software vendors, we have found that almost none are exploited before a “fix” has been provided to customers, and even after a “fix” is made publicly available only a very small amount are ever exploited.

Wait, if only a very small amount of vulnerabilities are exploited after a fix, and ‘almost none’ are exploited before a fix… why do you care if it is coordinated? You essentially invalidate any argument for a researcher coordinating disclosure with you. Why do they care if you clearly state that coordination doesn’t matter, and that the vulnerability will “almost [never]” be exploited? You can’t have this both ways.

CVD philosophy and action is playing out today as one company – Google – has released information about a vulnerability in a Microsoft product, two days before our planned fix on our well known and coordinated Patch Tuesday cadence, despite our request that they avoid doing so.

And this is where you move from propaganda to an outright lie. The issue in question was disclosed on December 29, 2014. That is 15 days, not two days, before your January patch Tuesday. I’d love to hold my breath waiting for MSRC or Betz to explain this minor ’rounding error’ on dates, but I have a feeling I would come out on the losing side. Or is Microsoft simply not aware of public vulnerability disclosures and should perhaps invest in a solution for such vulnerability intelligence? Yes, blatant sales opportunity, but they are desperately begging for it given this statement. =)

[Update. Apparently Microsoft is unhappy over Issue 123 which was auto-published on January 11, as opposed to Issue 118 linked above auto-published on December 29. So they are correct on two days, but curious they aren’t complaining over 118 at the same time when both are local privilege escalation vulnerabilities.]

One could also argue that this is a local privilege escalation vulnerability, which requires a level of access to exploit that simply does not apply to a majority of Windows users. Betz goes on to say that software is complicated (it is), and that not every vulnerability is equal (also true), but also glosses over the fact that Google is in the same boat they are. A little over four years ago, the Google security team posted a blog talking about “rebooting” responsible disclosure and say this:

As software engineers, we understand the pain of trying to fix, test and release a product rapidly; this especially applies to widely-deployed and complicated client software. Recognizing this, we put a lot of effort into keeping our release processes agile so that security fixes can be pushed out to users as quickly as possible.

To be fair, Google also did not publish a timeline of any sorts with this disclosure. We don’t know anything that happened after the September 30, 2014 report to Microsoft. Did you ask for more time Google? Did Microsoft say it was being patched in January? If so, you look like total assholes, disclosure policy be damned. If they didn’t mentioned January specifically and only asked for more time, maybe it was fair you kept to your schedule. One of the two parties should publish all of the correspondence now. What’s the harm, the issue is public! Come on.. someone show their cards, prove the other wrong. Back to Microsoft’s blog…

What’s right for Google is not always right for customers.

This is absolutely true. But you forgot the important qualifier; what is is right for Microsoft, is not always right for customers.

For example, look at CVE-2010-3889 (heavily referenced) aka “Microsoft Windows on 32-bit win32k.sys Keyboard Layout Loading Local Privilege Escalation”. This is one of four vulnerabilities used by Stuxnet. Unfortunately, Microsoft has no clear answer if this is even patched, four years later. That CVE identifier doesn’t seem to exist in any Microsoft security advisory. Why not? Did you really let a vulnerability that may have aided an attack on an Iranian nuclear power plant go unpatched? Think of the ethics questions there! Or is this a case of the Microsoft security response process not being as mature as I give them credit, and this is a dupe of CVE-2010-2743? Why does it take a third-party four years to figure this out while writing a blog on a whim?

It is a zero sum game where all parties end up injured.

What does this even mean, other than propaganda? It is rarely, if ever, a case where “all parties” are injured. If a researcher discloses something to you and publishes prematurely, or publishes on their own without contacting you, usually that party is not ‘injured’ in doing so. That is simple fact.

Betz’ blog goes on to quote the Microsoft CVD policy which states:

Microsoft’s Approach to Coordinated Vulnerability Disclosure
Under the principle of Coordinated Vulnerability Disclosure, finders disclose newly discovered vulnerabilities in hardware, software, and services directly to the vendors of the affected product; to a national CERT or other coordinator who will report to the vendor privately; or to a private service that will likewise report to the vendor privately.

Perhaps you should qualify that statement, as US-CERT has a 45 day disclosure policy in most cases. That is half the time Google gave you. Quoting from the US-CERT policy:

Q: Will all vulnerabilities be disclosed within 45 days?
A: No. There may often be circumstances that will cause us to adjust our publication schedule. Threats that are especially serious or for which we have evidence of exploitation will likely cause us to shorten our release schedule. Threats that require “hard” changes (changes to standards, changes to core operating system components) will cause us to extend our publication schedule. We may not publish every vulnerability that is reported to us.

Note that it does not qualify “the vendor asks for more time”. That is the United States government saying a vendor gets 45 days to patch with rare exception. Oh wait Mr. Betz, before you go quoting “changes to core operating system components”, I will stop you there. Vulnerabilities in win32k.sys are not new. That 3.1 meg binary (on Windows 7) is the cause for a lot of grief for Windows users in that file alone. Given that history, you cannot say that changes to that file meet the US-CERT criteria.

Finally, this isn’t the first pissing match between Google and Microsoft on vulnerability disclosure. While Microsoft has routinely played the victim card and Google certainly seems more aggressive on their disclosure policy, there is a more than one bit of irony if one looks deeper. In random order…

Microsoft disclosed a vulnerability in Google Chrome, but didn’t do proper research. This vulnerability may be in WebKit as one person notes, meaning it could affect other browsers like Apple Safari. If it does, then Apple would get blindsided in this disclosure, and it would not be ‘coordinated’ or ‘responsible’, and would qualify as ‘information anarchy’ as Microsoft once called it. While we don’t know if it was ultimately in WebKit, we do know this vulnerability exists because Google Chrome was trying to work around issues with Microsoft software.

Look at MSVR11-011 and MSVR11-012 from 2011, where Microsoft “coordinated” two vulnerabilities with the FFmpeg team. To be sure, the FFmpeg team is outstanding at responding to and fixing vulnerabilities. However, in the real world, there are thousands of vendors that use FFmpeg as a library in their own products. While it may have been fixed in the base code, it can easily take somewhere between months and a decade for vendors to learn about and upgrade the library in their software. Only in a completely naive world could Microsoft call this “coordinated”.

Even better, let’s go back to the inaugural Microsoft Vulnerability Research (MSVR) advisory, MSVR11-001. This was a “Use-After-Free Object Lifetime Vulnerability in Chrome” that in reality was a vulnerability in WebKit, the underlying rendering library used by Chrome. The problem is that WebKit is used by a lot more than Chrome. So the first advisory from MSVR conveniently targets a Google product, but completely botches the “coordinated” disclosure, going to a single vendor using WebKit code, because the Microsoft researchers apparently didn’t diagnose the problem fully. No big deal right?

Wrong. I am sure Adobe, Samsung, Amazon, Tizen, Symbian, BlackBerry, Midori, and Android web browser users would disagree strongly. Do you really want to compare the number of users you blindsided with this “coordinated” disclosure to the ones you protected? Microsoft was a bigger jackass on this disclosure than Google ever was, plain and simple.

Finally, do I even need to go into the absolute mess than you call the “Advanced Notification Service” (ANS)? In case readers aren’t aware, this is not a single program. This is several different programs with various names like MAPP and others. Just three days ago, you Mr. Betz announced that ANS was changing. This is after another program got changed drastically, multiple companies were kicked out of the MAPP program, and who knows what else happened. All of which was founded on Microsoft giving advanced and sometimes detailed vulnerability information to questionable companies, that may not be friendly parties.

The entire notion of “coordinated” disclosure went out the window as far as Microsoft goes, when they first implemented these programs. You specifically gave a very limited number of organizations details about vulnerabilities, before other customers had access. That, by definition, is not coordination. That is favoritism in the name of the bottom line, and speaks strongly against any intent you outline in yesterday’s blog post.

While Microsoft has taken great effort to improve their security process, it is disingenuous to call this anything but propaganda.

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4 responses

  1. “To be sure, the FFmpeg team is outstanding at responding to and fixing vulnerabilities.”

    I guess they must have improved. I tried reporting a small pile of uniquely-crashing testcases and associated metadata in 2009, and they were mostly ignored as far as I can tell from the bug report. I couldn’t find a live mirror of the report, but here’s a paste of the text: http://pastebin.com/Mvz1Pwxa

    The phrase “73 files are simply too much to handle.” exists in the report, which was marked as invalid.

    1. They have definitely changed lately, possibly due to the influx of reports from two specific researchers. It may also be if a ticket is opened on a per-issue basis, rather than a laundry list of possibles.

  2. You need a second update. You got that MS was complaining over 123, not 118, so they weren’t lying about 2 days, but you must have missed the comments in 123, where Google shows a timeline of responses from MS, including MS asking for extra time after having pulled back their initial ETA for the fix from Feb to Jan.

    1. Since the ticket is open, left it for readers. It shows part of the timeline but not the whole picture of communication, Google’s response, etc.

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