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Security The Almighty Buck

Bill Gates Should Buy Your Buffer Overruns 196 196

Slashdot regular Bennett Haselton has written in with his latest essay. He starts "WabiSabiLabi generated some controversy recently by announcing their eBay-like site for security researchers to sell security exploits to the highest bidder. But WabiSabiLabi didn't create the black-and-grey market for security exploits, they merely helped draw attention to it. There's nothing that companies like Microsoft can do about the black market where security exploits sell for tens of thousands of dollars, but there's one obvious thing they can do to help protect users: offer to buy up the security vulnerabilities themselves. If they did that, then the exploits would probably never make it onto a black-market auction in the first place, because the "white hat" researchers would have found them and reported them first. Thus I think WabiSabiLabi is doing the world a favor, by shining a spotlight on the black market that thrives when companies won't pay for security bug reports." Click that magical little read more link below to continue the thought.

Really, what is a good argument against companies paying for security exploits? It's virtually certain that if a company like Microsoft offered $1,000 for a new IE exploit, someone would find at least one and report it to them. So the question facing Microsoft when they choose whether to make that offer, is: Would they rather have the $1,000, or the exploit? What responsible company could possibly choose "the $1,000"? Especially considering that if they don't offer the prize, and as a result that particular exploit doesn't get found by a white-hat researcher, someone else will probably find it and sell it on the black market instead? (Throughout this discussion, I'm using Microsoft as a metaphor for all companies which have products in widespread use, and which do not currently pay for security exploits even though they could obviously afford to.)

Perhaps you say that you would be willing to report bugs to Microsoft for free, and I respect people who do that out of selflessness, but that's not the point. Even if you and some other people would do "white-hat testing" for free, there are more people who would do it if there were prizes. The amount of people willing to do security testing for free, has not been enough to keep exploits from being found and sold on the black market -- but if Microsoft offered enough money, it would be. Obviously if Microsoft offered more than the black-market prices, everyone would just sell their exploits to them. But probably Microsoft could offer much less than the black-market prices and still put the black market out of business, because there are lots of researchers who wouldn't sell exploits on the black market even for tens of thousands of dollars, but would be willing to participate in a legal Microsoft "white hat" program for much less money.

Microsoft would undoubtedly say that they do their own in-house testing, and indeed the offer of a prize should not be used as a substitute for good security testing within a company. But at the same time, the fact that a company does their own testing isn't a good reason for not offering a prize. If a company says that they already do their own in-house security audits to catch as many bugs as they can, that still doesn't answer the question: given that a cash offer would probably result in an outsider finding a new exploit that they missed, why wouldn't they want to take it? Even if there are already outsiders who willingly find new exploits and turn them over to Microsoft for free, there's almost certainly at least one more exploit out there that would be found if they offered a cash prize. (And if the cash prize doesn't turn up any new exploits, then the company doesn't pay out and has lost nothing.)

I've done security consulting for companies like Google and Macromedia who paid me "by the bug", so you might think I'm biased in favor of more such "bounty" programs because I think I could make money off of them. Actually, I think that if Microsoft and most other large software companies offered security hole bounties to everyone in the world, almost all exploits would be picked clean by other people, and my chances of getting anything out of it would go way down, and there would be one less buffer protecting me from having to get a real job. But most people's computers would be safer.

Microsoft does in fact "pay" for security exploits in their own way, by crediting people in their security bulletins. To some people, who report exploits in hopes of being recognized, this is apparently enough. And there are third-party companies like iDefense who will buy your security exploits and then use them to gain reputation-credits for themselves, by handing them over for free to the software developer and warning their own clients about the potential risks. But there are a lot of people including me who have found exploits in the past, but don't consider the benefits of being mentioned in a Microsoft security bulletin to be worth the effort of finding a new one. And even the benefits that iDefense gets from reporting security holes, are evidently not sufficient for them to offer enough money for exploits to compete with the black-market prices (if iDefense got that much benefit out of it, then they'd be able to offer so much money that nobody would sell exploits on the black market). So using recognition as payment is evidently not enough; as Lord Beckett says, "Loyalty is no longer the currency of the realm; I'm afraid currency is the currency of the realm."

A cash prize program might mean that some people get mad when they are turned away for offering "exploits" that don't really qualify, but so what? What are they going to do for revenge, release their "exploit" into the wild? If it's not a real exploit, then it won't do any harm, and if it is a real exploit, then Microsoft should have paid them after all! Some people might threaten to sue if they aren't awarded prizes, even if the rules of the program state clearly that Microsoft is the final arbiter of what counts as an exploit. Maybe in some rare cases they would even win. But all of this could be considered a cost of running the program, just like the cost of giving out the prizes themselves -- and all insignificant compared to the cost of an exploit that gets released into the wild and allows a malicious site to do "drive-by installs" of spyware onto people's machines.

Probably the real reason Microsoft doesn't pay for security exploits is that they don't pay the full price for those drive-by installs and other problems when a new exploit is discovered. I've heard hard-core open-source advocates say that either (a) Microsoft should be held liable for the cost of exploits committed using flaws in their software, or that (b) users of Microsoft software should be held liable for exploits committed through their machines (which would drive up the cost of using Windows and IE to the point where nobody would use it). If that happened, Microsoft probably would pay for security exploits to forestall disaster. But let's make the reasonable assumption that neither of those liability rules is going to come to pass. The real price that Microsoft currently pays for security exploits is in terms of reputation, and the price they're paying right now is too low, because people don't realize that Microsoft could find and fix a lot more bugs by spending only a tiny amount of money -- but chooses not to. Despite all the snickering when "Microsoft" and "security" are used in the same sentence, most people seem to believe that Microsoft is doing everything they can to prevent users from being exploited. But as long as Microsoft doesn't pay for security holes, they're emphatically not doing "everything they can".

It's not that I think security bosses at Microsoft are trying to screw anyone over. They probably just have an aversion to the idea of paying for security holes, and what I'm arguing is that such an aversion is irrational. The people they would be paying money to are not criminals or bad people, they're legitimate researchers who just can't afford to do work for Microsoft for free when they could be doing something else for money. Offering cash will bring in new exploits, and every exploit that is reported and fixed is one that can't be sold on the black market later.

There are some interesting details that would have to be worked out about how such a program would be implemented. For example, what happens if Bob reports an exploit, and then Alice later reports the same exploit, before Microsoft has gotten a chance to push the patch out? Microsoft wouldn't want to pay $1,000 to both of them, because then whenever Bob found an exploit, he could collude with Alice so that they both "independently" reported the same bug and got paid twice. Microsoft could pay only Bob, but Alice could get so disillusioned at getting paid nothing that she might stop helping entirely. My own suggestion would be to split the money between all researchers who report the same bug in the time window before the fix is pushed out. If 10 researchers happened to report the same bug and each only got a paltry $100, some of them would quit in disgust, but if researchers start to leave because the average payout-per-person has fallen too low, then that will drive the average payout back up, so the number of active researchers stays in equilibrium.

Another issue: What happens if a researcher reports an exploit confidentially, and then the next day, the exploit appears in the wild? If Microsoft's policy was that they would pay for the exploit anyway, then a researcher would have no incentive not to sell the exploit twice, once to Microsoft and again on the black market (whereupon it might start being used in the wild). On the other hand, if Microsoft refused to pay for exploits that were released in the wild before they issued a patch, then that might leave many researchers feeling cheated if they turned in a genuine exploit and got nothing just because someone else sold it on the black market before the patch came out. My suggestion would be to simply pay for exploits even if they did subsequently get released on the black market -- on the theory that of the white hat researchers who turn in bugs to Microsoft, most of them would be ethically opposed to selling exploits to black marketeers, so they shouldn't be punished if the exploit ends up on the black market since they probably weren't the ones who put it there. Another would be to make the payout so large that even if researchers got no payment when the exploit got leaked into the wild before a patch was issued, the payout from the times that they did get paid, would more than make up for it.

But whatever rules are decided upon, there should be some sort of monetary rewards for people who confidentially report security flaws to big software companies. Whatever you can say about the merits of rewarding people through "recognition", or through social pressures to practice "responsible disclosure", the one obvious fact is that it hasn't been enough -- exploits still get sold on the black market, and every exploit that gets sold on the black market, would have been reported to Microsoft if they'd offered enough money. The talent is out there that could find these bugs and get them fixed. Most of them just can't afford to donate the work for free -- but the amount of money Microsoft would have to pay them, is far less than the benefits that would accrue to people all over the world in terms of fewer drive-by spyware installs, fewer viruses, and fewer security breaches. And if these benefits were reflected back at Microsoft in terms of greater user confidence and fewer snide jokes about "Microsoft security", then everybody would win all around. There are no barriers to making this happen, except for a mindset that it's "bad" to pay for security research. But if you prevent millions of Internet Explorer users from being infected with spyware, you deserve to at least get paid what Bill Gates earns in the time it took you to read this sentence.

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Bill Gates Should Buy Your Buffer Overruns

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  • Re:Yeah this (Score:1, Informative)

    by physicsboy500 (645835) on Wednesday July 18, 2007 @12:22PM (#19902637)
    The point of Microsoft bidding on a vulnerability is not to put a hush on it, but instead to do something about it.

    The black market bidding wars currently exist because hackers want to get their hands on an unknown vulnerability they can exploit for a decent amount of time before it's discovered and patched, thus if Microsoft knows about it the value goes way down on the exploit because the time to patch is going to be vastly reduced. Microsoft won't (in theory) just sit on these bits of info (if they would like to remain in any way competitive), but instead use the info to produce a patch.
  • Re:Yeah this (Score:3, Informative)

    by vfrex (866606) on Wednesday July 18, 2007 @12:28PM (#19902733)
    What does it matter if the same vulnerability is discovered? Microsoft would buy the knowledge of the exploit, patch it, and it would no longer be an issue.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 18, 2007 @02:54PM (#19904933)
    That happened in Afghanistan. The US government ended up "detaining" people whose neighbour had a grudge against them.

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