Auction site sells security exploits

Founder says WabiSabiLabi will improve security by ensuring researchers get fairly compensated, but security companies are split over its value.

An eBay-like auction site that sells vulnerabilities will improve security by ensuring researchers get a fair price for their work, its founders say.

"The existing business model to reward researchers is a failure," said Herman Zampariolo, chief executive of WSLabi, and the man behind the WabiSabiLabi auction site. A tiny minority of vulnerabilities currently get patched, he said, because IT experts aren't paid for their work in uncovering them: "If the firemen are not paid, it's not easy to extinguish a fire."

"As long as vulnerabilities are bought and sold privately, the value can't be the right one," Zampariolo said. "Our intention is that the marketplace facility on WSLabi will enable security researchers to get a fair price for their findings and ensure that they will no longer be forced to give them away for free or sell them to cybercriminals," he added.

The site currently holds a remote buffer overflow in Yahoo Messenger, a Linux kernel memory leak, an SQL injection flaw in MKPortal and a SquirrelMail problem.

Although researchers analyzed around 7,000 vulnerabilities last year, he reckons the actual number of vulnerabilities found in code per year could be 139,362--a curiously exact figure, originally quoted by Gunter Ollmann of security company ISS, now an IBM subsidiary.

This situation led Zampariolo, previously chief executive of Italian network company iLight, to set up the WabiSabiLabi site, along with strategic director Roberto Preatoni, founder of the cybercrime archive. So far, no bids have been posted, possibly because of delays in identifying the buyers, each of whom must use snail mail or fax to deliver proof of their identity and their bank account--electronic currencies are not accepted on the site. Around 20 buyers have been registered so far, as well as 30 sellers, who have provided another batch of flaws that should be on the site next week.

"We are going full steam ahead," Zampariolo said. "More vulnerabilities have been submitted, and we are certifying and formatting them. Tomorrow is Saturday, and no one is going home."

Buyers can use nicknames to trade anonymously, although WSLabi will know who they are. Any exploits on the site must be disclosed to WSLabi, which will verify they are genuine, and provide a "proof of concept" to the eventual buyer. The lab has a staff of 10 engineers and others it can hire on a freelance basis.

The marketplace will be free to join and use for six months. After that, it will charge a fee of 10 percent to buyers and sellers, but the main revenue will be from services it offers to third parties using the knowledge base of vulnerabilities it has built up. This revenue will be shared with the finder of the vulnerability, and Zampariolo hopes that some companies will subscribe to these services instead of running their own security labs.

Existing security companies are split 50-50 over the value of WabiSabiLabi, but some stand to lose out, according to Zampariolo: "We are aiming to redesign completely the way security is handled. If our initiative is successful they will suffer." Among the likely losers will be iDefense and ISS, he said.

Among the critics is David Perry, director of education at Trend Micro. He described WabiSabiLabi as "an eBay for vulnerabilities" in published articles, asking: "How do we know who's good and who's bad when we do this?"

WSLabi is backed by about 5 million euros ($6.8 million) from individual investors, and hopes to float on a stock exchange (probably London's AIM or a similar exchange in Oslo) in around 18 months.

Peter Judge of ZDNet UK reported from London.