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Debunking Google's security vulnerability disclosure propaganda

When a security flaw was found within the first of Google's Android phones, what did the company do? Attack the researcher.

Question: You're a multibillion dollar tech giant, and you've launched a new phone platform after much media fanfare. Then a security researcher finds a flaw in your product within days of its release. Worse, the vulnerability is due to the fact that you shipped old (and known to be flawed) software on the phones. What should you do? Issue an emergency update, warn users, or perhaps even issue a recall? If you're Google, the answer is simple. Attack the researcher.

With the news of a flaw in Google's Android phone platform making The New York Times on Friday, the search giant quickly ramped up the spin machine. After first dismissing the amount of damage to which the flaw exposed users, anonymous Google executives then attempted to discredit the security researcher, Charlie Miller, who's a former NSA employee turned security consultant. Miller, the unnamed Googlers argued, acted irresponsibly by going to The New York Times to announce his vulnerability instead of giving the Big G a few weeks or months to fix the flaw:

Google executives said they believed that Mr. Miller had violated an unwritten code between companies and researchers that is intended to give companies time to fix problems before they are publicized.

What the Googlers are talking about is the idea of "responsible disclosure," one method of disclosing security vulnerabilities in software products. While it is an approach that is frequently followed by researchers, it is not the only method available, and in spite of the wishes of the companies whose products are frequently analyzed, it is by no means the "norm" for the industry.

Another frequently used method is that of "full disclosure"--in which a researcher will post complete details of a vulnerability to a public forum (typically a mailing list dedicated to security topics). This approach is often used by researchers when they have discovered a flaw in a product made by a company with a poor track record of working with researchers--or worse, threatening to sue them. For example, some researchers refuse to provide Apple with any advanced notification, due to its past behavior.

A third method involves selling information on the vulnerabilities to third parties (such TippingPoint and iDefense)--who pass that information on to their own customers, or perhaps keep it for themselves. Charlie Miller, the man who discovered the Android flaw, has followed this path in the past, most notably when he sold details of a flaw in the Linux kernel to the U.S. National Security Agency for $50,000 (PDF).

Google's poor track record
First, consider the fact that security is a two-sided coin. If Google wants researchers to come to it first with vulnerability information, it is only fair to expect that Google be forthcoming with the community (and the general public) once the flaw has been fixed. Google's approach in this area is that of total secrecy--not acknowledging flaws, and certainly not notifying users that a vulnerability existed or has been fixed. Google's CIO admitted as much in a 2007 interview with The Wall Street Journal:

Regarding security-flaw disclosure, Mr. Merrill says Google hasn't provided much because consumers, its primary users to date, often aren't tech-savvy enough to understand security bulletins and find them "distracting and confusing." Also, because fixes Google makes on its servers are invisible to the user, notification hasn't seemed necessary, he says.

Second, companies do not have a right to expect "responsible disclosure." It is a mutual compromise, where the researchers provide the company with advanced notification in exchange for some form of assurance that the company will act reasonably, keep the lines of communication open, and give the researcher full credit once the vulnerability is fixed.

Google's track record in this area leaves much to be desired. Many top-tier researchers have not been credited for disclosing flaws, and in some cases, Google has repeatedly dragged its feet in fixing flaws. The end result is that many frustrated researchers have opted to follow the full-disclosure path, after hitting a brick wall when trying to provide Google with advanced notice.

I can personally confirm this experience, after I discovered a fairly significant flaw in a number of commercial Firefox toolbars back in 2007. While Mozilla and Yahoo replied to my initial e-mail within a day or so and kept the lines of communication open, Google repeatedly stonewalled me, and I didn't hear anything from them for weeks at a time. Eventually, Google fixed the flaw a day or two after I went public with the vulnerability, 45 days after I had originally given the company private notice. As a result, I have extreme sympathy for those in the research community who have written Google off.

A rather unimpressive vulnerability
Once we actually look into the details of the vulnerability, and Miller's disclosure, the situation looks even worse for Google.

A known vulnerability: The Android platform is built on top of more than 80 open-source libraries and programs. This particular flaw had been known about for some time and already fixed in the current version of the open-source libraries. The flaw in Google's product only exists because the company shipped out-of-date software, which was known to be vulnerable.

Advanced notice: While the anonymous Google executives criticized Miller for not following responsible disclosure practices, it is worth noting that the researcher did provide Google with early notice--informing the company on the 20th of October. It is also important to note that Miller and his colleagues have yet to actually provide full information on the vulnerability or a working proof-of-concept exploit to the security community. Thus, it can hardly be said that Miller followed the full-disclosure path.

If Google can criticize Miller at all, it cannot be for not warning the company, but perhaps for not providing them with enough warning. However, given that Google shipped known-vulnerable software to hundreds of thousands of users, and that fixed versions of the vulnerable software packages have been available for some time, it is difficult for this blogger to sympathize with the folks in Mountain View.

Furthermore, given Mr. Miller's previous mercenaryish history of selling software vulnerabilities to the National Security Agency (which presumably used the flaws to break into foreign government computers, and not in order to fix the vulnerable software), we should be happy that he is at least now sharing the existence of this flaw with the public. At least this way, developers have a good chance of finding and fixing it.

Disclosure: In the summer of 2006, I worked as an intern for the Application Security Team at Google. Furthermore between 2003-2005, I was a student at Johns Hopkins University and was advised by Prof. Avi Rubin, who is one of the founders of Independent Security Evaluators, the company that employs Charlie Miller. A couple of my former colleagues also now work for ISE. I have not spoken with them (or anyone at Google) about this article.