[Note: This blog had been sitting as a 99% completed draft since early September. I lost track of time and forgot to finish it off then. Since this is still a relevant topic, I am publishing now despite it not being quite as timely in the context of the articles cited in it.]
An article by Kim Zetter in Wired, titled “When Security Experts Gather to Talk Consensus, Chaos Ensues“, talks about a recent meeting that tried to address the decades-old problem of vulnerability disclosure.
This article covers a recent meetings organized by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a division of the US Commerce Department (DoC). This is not the main reason I am blogging, when most would assume I would speak up on this topic. I’ll give you an odd insight into this from my perspective, then get to the real point. The person who organized this, was virtually introduced to me on July 31, 2015. He replied the same day, and had a great introduction that showed intent to make this a worthwhile effort:
The US Dept of Commerce is trying to help in the old dance between security researchers and system/SW vendors. We think that folks on most sides want a better relationship, with more trust, more efficiency, and better results. Our goal is to bring the voices together in a “multistakeholder process” to find common ground in an open participant-led forum.
I’ve been trying to reach out to many people in this area, on all sides. I know that you’re both veterans of many discussions like this, and I’d like to chat with you about lessons learned, how things may (or may not) have changed, and generally get your insight into how to make this not suck.
That level of understanding from a U.S. government employee is rewarding and encouraging. But, in the interest of fairness and pointing out the obvious, the first thing I asked:
In the past couple of weeks, I have heard mention of the Dept. of Commerce becoming involved in vulnerability disclosure. One thing that is not clear to myself, and many others, is what your intended role or “jurisdiction” (for lack of better words) is?
That is an important question that the DoC must consider, and understand how to respond to.
That question should still be on everyone’s minds, as it has not been answered in a factual manner. Good intentions only get you so far. Having another government player in this mess, who has no power, no jurisdiction, and only “the best of intentions” can only muddy the waters at best. The notes of the ~ 6 hour meeting are now online. I haven’t read them, don’t plan to. This is pure academic masturbation that has escaped from academia, and missed the age old point that so many refuse to admit. “When the $government outlaws chinchillas, only the outlaws will have chinchillas.” Seriously, stupidly simple concept that basically as much the basis for our society as anything else you hold dear.
I’m jumping past that, because a vulnerability tourist said something else that needs addressing. If you haven’t seen me use that term, ‘vulnerability tourist’ refers to someone who dabbles in the bigger world of vulnerability aggregation, disclosure, and the higher-level ideas surrounding it. This doesn’t speak to finding vulns (although it helps), disclosing them (although it helps), or aggregating them for long-term analysis (although it helps). It speaks to someone who thinks they are doing good speaking as some form of expert, but are actually continuing to harm it due to a lack of real knowledge on the topic. When someone who has next to no experience in those realms speaks on behalf of the industry, it becomes difficult to take them seriously… but unfortunately, journalists do. Especially when it comes to hot topics or the dreaded “0day” vulnerabilities, that happen every day… while the media cherry picks the occasional one. As usual in our industry, give such a person a bit of rope and you are likely to find them hanging a few days or weeks later.
Focusing on a single aspect of the Wired article:
Members of the audience snickered, for example, when a representative from the auto industry pleaded that researchers should consider “safety” when testing for vulnerabilities. At a bar after the event, some attendees said automakers are the ones who don’t seem concerned about consumer safety when they sell cars that haven’t been pen-tested for vulnerabilities or when it takes them five years to fix a known vulnerability.
And when Corman sought community support for new companies entering the bug bounty arena, some attendees responded with derision. He noted that after United Airlines launched its bug bounty program this year—the first for the airline industry—it suffered backlash from the security community instead of support.
Just Google “volkswagen emissions software” and you will see why the public cannot trust auto manufacturers. Nothing to do with vulnerability research, and at least one is manipulating their software to defraud the public which may hurt the world environment in ways we can’t comprehend. If that isn’t enough for you, consider the same company spent two years doing everything in their power to hide a vulnerability in their software, that may have allowed criminals to more easily steal consumer’s cars.
So first, ask yourself why anyone from the security arena is so gung-ho in supporting the auto industry. Sure, it would benefit our industry, and more importantly benefit the average consumer. Effecting that change would be incredible! But given the almost three decades of disclosure debate centered on questionable dealings between researchers and vendors, it is not a fight you can win fast. And more importantly, it is not one you capitulate to for your own gain.
Moving past that, the quote from Corman speaks to me personally. When United announced their bug bounty program, it received a lot of media attention. And this is critical to note. A company not known for a bug bounty program, in an industry not known for it, offering perks that were new to the industry (i.e. United, airlines, and frequent flier miles). Sure, that is interesting! Unfortunately, none of the journalists that covered that new bounty program read their terms, or if they did, couldn’t comprehend why it was a horrible program that put researchers at great risk. To anyone mildly familiar with bounty programs, it screamed “run, not walk, away…”. I was one of the more vocal in criticizing the program on social media. When a new bounty opens up, there are hundreds of (largely) neophyte researchers that flock to it, trying to find the lowest hanging fruit, to get the quick and easy bounties. If you have run a vulnerability reporting program, even one without bounties, you likely have witnessed this (I have). I was also very quick to start reaching out to my security contacts, trying to find back-channel contacts to United to give them feedback on their offering.
United’s original bounty program was not just a little misleading, but entirely irresponsible and misleading. It basically said, in laymen’s terms, “if you find a vuln in our site, report it and you may get up to 1 million airline miles!” It also said, you cannot test ANY united.com site, you cannot test our airplanes (on the back of the Chris Roberts / United / FBI drama), our mobile application, or anything else remotely worth testing. The program had a long list of what you could NOT test, that excluded every single target a malicious hacker would target. Worse? It did not offer a test / Dev network, a test airplane, or any other ‘safe’ target to test. In fact, it even excluded the “beta” United site! Uh… what were bounty-seekers supposed to do here? If United thinks that bug bounty seekers read past the “mail bugs to” and “this is the potential bounty”, they need to reconsider their bounty program. The original bounty excluded:
“Code injection on live systems”
Bugs on customer-facing websites such as:
Yet, despite that exclusionary list, they did NOT include what was ALLOWED to be tested. That, in modern security terms, is called a honeypot. Don’t even begin to talk about “intent”, because in a court of law with some 17 year old facing CFAA charges, intent doesn’t enter the picture until way too late. The original United program was set up so that they could trivially file a case with the FBI and go after anyone attacking any of their Internet-addressable systems, their mobile apps, or their airplanes. Shortly after the messy public drama of a white hat hacker telling the media he tested the airplane systems, and could have done “bad things” in so many words.
My efforts to reach out to United via back-channels worked. One of their security engineers that is part of the bounty program was happy to open a dialogue with me. See, this is where we get to the bits that are the most important. We traded a few mails, where I outlined my issues with the bounty program and gave them extensive feedback on how to better word it, so that researchers could not only trust the program, but help them with their efforts. The engineer replied quickly saying they would review my feedback and I never heard back. That is the norm for me, when I reach out and try to help a company. So now, when I go to write this blog, of course I look to see if United revised their bounty program! Let’s look at the current United bug bounty offering:
Bugs that are eligible for submission:
Bugs on United-operated, customer-facing websites such as:
Bugs on the United app
Bugs in third-party programs loaded by united.com or its other online properties
Wow… simply WOW. That is a full 180 from the original program! Not only do they allow testing of the sites they excluded before, but they opened up more sites to the program. They better defined what was allowed (considerably more lenient for testing) as far as technical attacks, and targets. I still disagree a bit on a few things that are “not allowed”, but completely understand their reasons for doing so. They have to balance the safety of their systems and customers with the possibility that a vulnerability exists. And they are wise to consider that a vulnerability may exist.
So after all that, let’s jump back to the quote which drew my ire.
And when [Josh] Corman sought community support for new companies entering the bug bounty arena, some attendees responded with derision. He noted that after United Airlines launched its bug bounty program this year—the first for the airline industry—it suffered backlash from the security community instead of support.
This is why a soundbyte in a media article doesn’t work. It doesn’t help vendors, and it doesn’t help researchers. It only helps someone who has largely operated outside the vulnerability world for a long time. Remember, “security researcher” is an overly vague term that has many meanings. Nothing about that press release suggests Corman has experience in any of the disciplines that matter in this debate. As a result, his lack of experience shows clearly here. Perhaps it was his transition from being a “DevOps” expert for a couple years, to being a “Rugged Software” expert, to becoming a “vulnerability disclosure” expert shortly after?
First, United’s original bug bounty offering was horrible in every way. There was basically zero merit to it, and only served to put researchers at risk. Corman’s notion that scaring companies away from this example is ‘bad’ is irresponsible and contradictory to his stated purpose with the I Am The Cavalry initiative. While Corman’s intentions are good, the delivery simply wasn’t helpful to our industry, the automobile industry, or the airline industry. Remember, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions“.