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Security researchers and vendors--a truce?

Security researchers pull presentation on Web attack method to give Adobe time to develop a patch in the latest case of researchers voluntarily restraining on disclosing vulnerabilities. Is compromise the answer?

There has historically been a clash between security researchers who find security flaws in software products and the companies that make those products.

But two recent examples of cooperation between researchers and vendors show hope for future truces.

Leading by example was Dan Kaminsky, director of penetration testing for IOActive, who warned security software vendors about a fatal flaw in the DNS (Domain Name System) months before going public so vendors could release patches.

"What he and others he took into his confidence did over the last few months was not only responsible but extraordinary," my colleague Robert Vamosi wrote in a column about Kaminsky's unprecedented disclosure restraint.

This week, security researchers Robert "RSnake" Hansen and Jeremiah Grossman agreed to withdraw their presentation on a new Web attack they dubbed "Clickjacking" from an upcoming OWASP USA security conference in New York at Adobe Systems' request. Now, Adobe can create a patch for one of its applications before they release proof-of-concept code for the vulnerability, which would allow an attacker to take over the microphone, Webcam, and audio on a computer, according to a report on the Dark Reading site on Tuesday. (Oddly, the vulnerability is actually due to an architectural issue in Internet Explorer, the researchers say.)

"I've always had this philosophy. If you find a mediocre to bad vulnerability, it's better to just talk about it, get it out in the open, and let the world see it," RSnake wrote in a first-person account of the situation on Dark Reading. "However, I've always told myself if I found something like a complete remote desktop compromise or something equally bad, that I'd let the vendors know. The last thing I want to do is spawn a botnet army based on my research. There's a big difference between educating the community about a problem and empowering bad guys."

Most of the researcher-vendor conflict comes down to a matter of timing. Vendors tend to want researchers to keep mum until a fix is ready. And researchers want to go public sooner rather than later so that people relying on those products will know they are at risk. Also, going public can serve to motivate a vendor who might be dragging their feet on acknowledging and fixing the problem.

In 2002, Hewlett-Packard threatened to sue researchers who had publicized a vulnerability in the company's Tru64 Unix operating system. The case was notable in that it was the first time the Digital Millennium Copyright Act had been invoked to stifle research related to computer security.

Previously, the DMCA had been used to prosecute or threaten researchers who had discovered ways to break copyright protections. For instance, Russian programmer Dmitry Sklyarov went to jail in 2001 after Adobe convinced the Justice Department that he had violated the DMCA by breaking e-book protections, but he was later released. And Princeton University professor Edward Felten and his students withdrew a paper on how to break e-music protections after being threatened by the recording industry.

In 2005, Cisco Systems filed a lawsuit against security researcher Michael Lynn just hours after he gave a presentation at Defcon about how attackers could take over Cisco routers. That case was ultimately settled.

These threats and legal actions are unnecessary. Kaminsky, Hansen, and Grossman have shown that there can be compromise. That's a good lesson for three MIT students who pulled a talk at Defcon this summer on hacking the Massachusetts subway system, and for the transit officials who hauled them into court.