Rashomon of Disclosure

By Blair Morris

December 12, 2019

In a world of changing technology, there are few constants – but if there is one constant in security, it is the rhythmic flare-up of discussions about disclosure on the social-media-du-jour (mailing lists in the past, now mostly Twitter and Facebook).

Many people in the industry have wrestled with, and contributed to, the discussions, norms, and modes of operation – I would particularly like to highlight contributions by Katie Moussouris and Art Manion, but there are many that would deserve mentioning whose true impact is unknown outside a small circle. In all discussions of disclosure, it is important to keep in mind that many smart people have struggled with the problem. There may not be easy answers.

In this blog post, I would like to highlight a few aspects of the discussion that are important to me personally – aspects which influenced my thinking, and which are underappreciated in my view.

I have been on many (but not most) sides of the table during my career:

  • On the side of the independent bug-finder who reports to a vendor and who is subsequently threatened.
  • On the side of the independent bug-finder that decided reporting is not worth my time.
  • On the side of building and selling a security appliance that handles malicious input and that needs to be built in a way that we do not add net exposure to our clients.
  • On the side of building and selling a software that clients install.
  • On the side of Google Project Zero, which tries to influence the industry to improve its practices and rectify some of the bad incentives.

The sides of the table that are notably missing here are the role of the middle- or senior-level manager that makes his living shipping software on a tight deadline and who is in competition for features, and the role of the security researcher directly selling bugs to governments. I will return to this in the last section.

I expect almost every reader will find something to vehemently disagree with. This is expected, and to some extent, the point of this blog post.

The simplistic view of reporting vulnerabilities to vendors

I will quickly describe the simplistic view of vulnerability reporting / patching. It is commonly brought up in discussions, especially by folks that have not wrestled with the topic for long. The gist of the argument is:

  1. Prior to publishing a vulnerability, the vulnerability is unknown except to the finder and the software vendor.
  2. Very few, if any, people are at risk while we are in this state.
  3. Publishing about the information prior to the vendor publishing a patch puts many people at risk (because they can now be hacked). This should hence not happen.

Variants of this argument are used to claim that no researcher should publish vulnerability information before patches are available, or that no researcher should publish information until patches are applied, or that no researcher should publish information that is helpful for building exploits.

This argument, at first glance, is simple, plausible, and wrong. In the following, I will explain the various ways in which this view is flawed.

The Zardoz experience

For those that joined Cybersecurity in recent years: Zardoz was a mailing list on which “whitehats” discussed and shared security vulnerabilities with each other so they could be fixed without the “public” knowing about them.

The result of this activity was: Every hacker and active intelligence shop at the time wanted to have access to this mailing list (because it would regularly contain important new attacks). They generally succeeded. Quote from the Wikipedia entry on Zardoz:

On the other hand, the circulation of Zardoz postings among computer
hackers was an open secret, mocked openly in a famous Phrack parody of
an IRC channel populated by notable security experts.[3]

History shows, again and again, that small groups of people that share vulnerability information ahead of time always have at least one member compromised; there are always attackers that read the communication.

It is reasonably safe to assume that the same holds for the email addresses to which security vulnerabilities are reported. These are high-value targets, and getting access to them (even if it means physical tampering or HUMINT) is so useful that well-funded persistent adversaries need to  be assumed to have access to them. It is their job, after all.

(Zardoz isn’t unique. Other examples are unfortunately less-well documented. Mail spools of internal mailing
lists of various CERTs were circulated in hobbyist hacker circles in the
early 2000s, and it is safe to assume that any dedicated intelligence
agency today can reproduce that level of access.)


The fallacy of uniform risk

Risk is not uniformly distributed throughout society.
Some people are more at-risk than others: Dissidents in oppressive
countries, holders of large quantities of cryptocurrency, people who
think their work is journalism when the US government thinks their work
is espionage, political stakeholders and negotiators. Some of them face
quite severe consequences from getting hacked, ranging from mild
discomfort to death.

The majority of
users in the world are much less at risk: The worst-case scenario for
them, in terms of getting hacked, is inconvenience and a moderate amount
of financial loss.

This means that the naive “counting” of victims in the original argument makes a false assumption:  Everybody has the same “things to lose” by getting hacked. This is not the case: Some people have their life and liberty at risk, but most people don’t. For those that do not, it may actually be rational behavior to not update their devices immediately, or to generally not care much about security – why take precautions against an event that you think is either unlikely or largely not damaging to you?

For those at risk, though, it is often rational to be paranoid – to avoid using technology entirely for a while, to keep things patched, and to invest time and resources into keeping their things secure.

Any discussion of the pros and cons of disclosure should take into account that risk profiles vary drastically. Taking this argument to the extreme, the question arises: “Is it OK to put 100m people at risk of inconvenience if I can reduce the risk of death for 5 people?”

I do not have an answer for this sort of calculation, and given the uncertainty of all probabilities and data points in this, I am unsure whether one exists.

Forgetting about patch diffing

One of the lessons that our industry sometimes (and to my surprise) forgets is: Public availability of a patch is, from the attacker perspective, not much different than a detailed analysis of the vulnerability including a vulnerability trigger.

There used to be a cottage industry of folks that analyze patches and write reports on what the fixed bugs are, whether they were fixed correctly, and how to trigger them. They usually operated away from the spotlight, but that does not mean they do not exist – many were our customers.

People in the offensive business can build infrastructure that helps them rapidly analyze patches and get the information they need out of them. Defenders, mostly due to organizational and not technical reasons, can not do this. This means that in the absence of a full discussion of the vulnerability, defenders will be at a significant information disadvantage compared to attackers.

Without understanding the details of the vulnerability, networks and hosts cannot be monitored for its exploitation, and mitigations-other-than-patching cannot be applied.

Professional attackers, on the other hand, will have all the information about a vulnerability not long after they obtain a patch (if they did not have it beforehand already).

The fallacy of “do not publish triggers”

When publishing about a vulnerability, should “triggers”, small pieces of data that hit the vulnerability and crash the program, be published?

Yes, building the first trigger is often time-consuming for an attacker. Why would we save them the time?

Well, because without a public trigger for a vulnerability, at least, it is
extremely hard for defensive staff to determine whether a particular
product in use may contain the bug in question. A prime example
of this CVE-2012-6706: Everybody assumed that the vulnerability is only
present on Sophos; no public PoC was provided. So nobody realized that
the bug lived in upstream Unrar, and it wasn’t until 2017 that it got
re-discovered and fixed. 5 years of extra time for a bug because no trigger was published.

If you have an Antivirus Gateway running somewhere, or any piece of
legacy software, you need at least a trigger to check whether the
product includes the vulnerable software. If you are attempting at building any form of custom detection for an attack, you also need the trigger.

The fallacy of “do not publish exploits”

Now, should exploits be published? Clearly the answer should be no?

In my experience, even large organizations with mature security teams and programs often struggle to understand the changing nature of attacks. Many people that are now in management positions cut their teeth on (from today’s perspective) relatively simple bugs, and have not fully understood or appreciated how exploitation has changed.

In general, defenders are almost always at an information disadvantage: Attackers will not tell them what they do, and gleefully applaud and encourage when the defender gets a wrong idea in his head about what to do. Read the declassified cryptolog_126.pdf Eurocrypt trip report to get a good impression of how this works.

Three of the last four sessions were of no value whatever, and indeed there was almost nothing at Eurocrypt to interest us (this is good news!). The scholarship was actually extremely good; it’s just that the directions which external cryptologic researchers have taken are remarkably far from our own lines of interest. 

Defense has many resources, but many of them are misapplied: Mitigations performed that do not hold up to an attacker slightly changing strategies, products bought that do not change an attacker calculus or the exploit economics, etc.

A nontrivial part of this misapplication is information scarcity about real exploits. My personal view is that Project Zero’s exploit write-ups, and the many great write-ups by the Pwn2Own competitors and other security research teams (Pangu and other Chinese teams come to mind) about the actual internal mechanisms of their exploits is invaluable to transmit understanding of actual attacks to defenders, and are necessary to help the industry stay on course.

Real exploits can be studied, understood, and potentially used by skilled defenders for both mitigation and detection, and to test other defensive measures.

The reality of software shipping and prioritization

Companies that sell software make their money by shipping new features. Managers in these organizations get promoted for shipping said features and reaching more customers. If they succeed in doing so, their career prospects are bright, and by the time the security flaws in the newly-shipped features become evident, they are four steps in the career ladder and two companies away from the risk they created.

The true cost of attack surface is not properly accounted for in modern software development (even if you have an SDLC); largely because this cost is shouldered by the customers that run the software – and even then, only by a select few that have unusual risk profiles.

A sober look at current incentive structures in software development shows that there is next to zero incentive for a team that ships a product to invest in security on a 4-5 year horizon. Everybody perceives themselves to be in breakneck competition, and velocity is prioritized. This includes bug reports: The entire reason for the 90-day deadline that Project Zero enforced was the fact that without a hard deadline, software vendors would routinely not prioritize fixing an obvious defect, because … why would you distract yourself with doing it if you could be shipping features instead?

The only disincentive to adding new attack surface these days is getting heckled on a blog post or in a Blackhat talk. Has any manager in the software industry ever had their career damaged by shipping particularly broken software and incurring risks for their users? I know of precisely zero examples. If you know of one, please reach out, I would be extremely interested to learn more.

The tech industry as risk-taker on behalf of others

(I will use Microsoft as an example in the following paragraphs,
but you can replace it with Apple or Google/Android with only minor changes. The
tech giants are quite similar in this.)

Microsoft has made 248bn$+ in profits
since 2005. In no year did they make less than 1bn$ in profits per
month. Profits in the decade leading up to 2005 were lower, and I could
not find numbers, but even in 2000 MS was raking in more than a billion
in profits a quarter. And part of these profits were made by incurring risks on behalf of their customers
– by making decisions to not properly sandbox the SMB components, by
under-staffing security, by not deprecating and migrating customers away
from insecure protocols.

The software product industry (including mobile phone makers) has reaped excess profits for decades by selling risky products and offloading the risk onto their clients and society. My analogy is that they constructed financial products that yield a certain amount of excess return but blow up disastrously under certain geopolitical events, then sold some of the excess return and *all* of the risk to a third party that is not informed of the risk.

Any industry that can make profits while offloading the risks will incur excess risks, and regulation is required to make sure that those that make the profits also carry the risks. Due to historical accidents (the fact that software falls under copyright) and unwillingness to regulate the golden goose, we have allowed 30 years of societal-risk-buildup, largely driven by excess profits in the software and tech industry.

Now that MS (and the rest of the tech industry) has sold the rest of society a bunch of toxic paper that blows up in case of some geopolitical tail events (like the resurgence of great-power competition), they really do not wish to take the blame for it – after all, there may be regulation in the future, and they may have to actually shoulder some of the risks they are incurring.

What is the right solution to such a conundrum? Lobbying, and a concerted PR effort to deflect the blame. Security researchers, 0-day vendors, and people that happen to sell tools that could be useful to 0-day vendors are much more convenient targets than admitting: All this risk that is surfaced by security research and 0-day vendors is originally created for excess profit by the tech industry.

FWIW, it is rational for them to do so, but I disagree that we should let them do it :-). 

A right to know

My personal view on disclosure is influenced by the view that consumers have a right to get all available information about the known risks of the products they use. If an internal Tobacco industry study showed that smoking may cause cancer, that should have been public from day 1, including all data.

Likewise, consumers of software products should have access to all known information about the security of their product, all the time. My personal view is that the 90 days deadlines that are accepted these days are an attempt at balancing competing interests (availability of patches vs. telling users about the insecurity of their device).

Delaying much further or withholding data from the customer is – in my personal opinion – a form of deceit; my personal opinion is that the tech industry should be much more aggressive in warning users that under current engineering practices, their personal data is never fully safe in any consumer-level device. Individual bug chains may cost a million dollars now, but that million dollars is amortized over a large number of targets, so the cost-per-individual compromise is reasonably low.

I admit that my view (giving users all the information so that they can (at least in theory) make good decisions using all available information) is a philosophical one: I believe that withholding available information that may alter someone’s decision is a form of deceit, and that consent (even in business relationships) requires transparency with each other. Other people may have different philosophies.

Rashomon, or how opinions are driven by career incentives

The movie Rashomon that gave this blog post the title is a beautiful black-and-white movie from 1950, directed by the famous Akira Kurosawa. From the Wikipedia page:

The film is known for a plot device that involves various characters providing subjective, alternative, self-serving, and contradictory versions of the same incident.

If you haven’t seen it, I greatly recommend watching it.

The reason why I gave this blog post the title “Rashomon of disclosure” is to emphasize the complexity of the situation. There are many facets, and my views are strongly influenced by the sides of the table I have been on – and those I haven’t been on.

Everybody participating in the discussion has some underlying interests and/or philosophical views that influence their argument.

Software vendors do not want to face up to generating excess profits by offloading risk to society. 0-day vendors do not want to face up to the fact that a fraction of their clients kills people (sometimes entirely innocent ones), or at least break laws in some jurisdiction. Security researchers want to have the right to publish their research, even if they fail to significantly impact the broken economics of security.

Everybody wants to be the hero of their own story, and in their own account of the state of the world, they are.

None of the questions surrounding vulnerability disclosure, vulnerability discovery, and the trade-offs involved in it are easy. People that claim there is an easy and obvious path to go about security vulnerability disclosure have either not thought about it very hard, or have sufficiently strong incentives to self-delude that there is one true way.

After 20+ years of seeing this debate go to and fro, my request to everybody is: When you explain to the world why you are the hero of your story, take a moment to reflect on alternative narratives, and make an effort to recognize that the story is probably not that simple.

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