I had four very interesting responses from three readers, Dale Peterson (here and here), Jake Brodsky (here) and Adam Crain (here), to my previous post about the debate on recognizing researchers who disclose vulnerabilities without coordinating their disclosure with vendors. All four comments are certainly worth reading; particularly Jake’s since he has specific recommendations on how to proceed.
Code of Ethics
Jake unabashedly supports his self-interest (and as he points out all of our self-interest as we could all be affected by a successful attack on critical infrastructure) by calling for standards on how researchers disclose their vulnerability disclosures.
“However, we CAN set standards for how we expect people to behave. We can promulgate expected disclosure policies from reputable researchers. We don't have to give them a podium and recognition for acting in irresponsible ways.”
But we already have a de facto code of ethics set forth by ICS-CERT. Tell them about the vulnerability; they will coordinate with the vendor. If the vendor doesn’t respond within 45 days ICS-CERT will publish the vulnerability anyway. The problem with a ‘code of ethics’ is that it is only as effective as the sanctioning body that enforces it. See for example the lawyer’s code of ethics as enforced by the American Bar Association; well, maybe that’s not a good example.
We also have to remember that there is a certain anarchistic streak in the background of a large proportion of the hacker community. For this portion of the community cooperation with ICS-CERT is something to be avoided and even expecting their cooperation with vendors is a pretty long stretch.
The Legal Approach
Dale makes the point that researchers are going to do what they want with the vulnerability that they discover and Jake acknowledges that point:
“There will be people who violate these standards. And no, we can't stop them any more than we can stop some lunatic from shooting up a school or work-place. But we can prosecute them and anyone who assists them.”
To prosecute someone we need something more than a code of conduct we need a body of law that addresses the issue. So let’s look at how such a law might work. Let’s start with the simplest form such a law could take; it is illegal to publicly disclose a software vulnerability. Forget that, even the most conservative court is going to rule that that is overly broad and vague and a violation of the first amendment protections of free speech.
Okay, lets limit it to control system vulnerabilities, surely that provides a societal protection reason for limiting freedom of speech; you know the old falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a movie theater exemption. I don’t know though; this could include a discussion in a hot rod magazine about how to tweak an automotive control chip to get better performance. Or, a discussion in a medical journal about a new type of interference in the operation of an insulin pump.
Okay, we’ll limit it to control systems at critical infrastructure facilities and we’ll come up with some sort of definition of all of the technical terms that the courts can easily interpret and apply in an appropriately limited manner. And we’ll train investigators and prosecutors and judges and juries so that everyone understands all of the technical jargon and the ins and outs of cybersecurity so that people can be appropriately prosecuted for offenses against these neat new laws.
And this will stop the uncoordinated disclosures of vulnerabilities. Yep, just like the drug laws have stopped the sale of illegal drugs; and just like the laws against cyber-theft have protected credit cards. Oh, and remember that US laws only apply in the US, not to researchers in other countries or more importantly to researchers working for other governments.
And meanwhile, the legitimate and ethical security researchers withdraw from the business because the legal restrictions that they have to work with make it too hard to make a living. Without those researchers and the services that their firms provide, how are we going to deal with the vulnerabilities that are discovered and reported via the underground electronic counter-culture that will still thrive? How will we develop the tools to deal with the vulnerabilities that are discovered by criminal organizations? How will we develop the methods of protecting control systems from attacks by foreign powers and terrorist organizations? Are we going to rely on the government and academia?
Embrace all Researchers
No, we need to remember that the problem isn’t recalcitrant and uncooperative researchers; the problem is that the vulnerabilities exist in these control systems. Control systems software, firmware and devices are just so complex that it is not reasonably possible to develop a system that is free of vulnerabilities.
We need a vibrant and diverse research community to find the vulnerabilities and figure out ways to mitigate their effects. We cannot rely on the vendor community to find these flaws; it runs contrary to the way these organizations operate. Their mandate is to produce reasonably functional products at the lowest possible cost. Even if we were to mandate a vulnerability detection organization within each vendor firm, that organization would never receive the support it needs because it would be a cost center within the company not a profit center.
We need to find a way to encourage independent researchers to continue to look for vulnerabilities in critical systems. And we need to find a way to get those researchers to share the information in manner that allows vendors to correct deficiencies in their products and allows owners to implement improvements to their systems in a timely manner.
Researchers like Adam and Chris (and a whole lot of others as well) have demonstrated their commitment to finding vulnerabilities and working with both the vendor community and ICS-CERT to get the vulnerabilities recognized and mitigated. Their voluntary efforts need to be recognized and their business models need to be supported.
But we cannot ignore the contributions of researchers like Luigi who now sells his vulnerabilities in the grey marketplace or researchers like Blake who freely publish their discoveries. The vulnerabilities that they discover are no less valuable to the control system community than those reported by Adam and Chris. And yes, vulnerabilities are valuable, both for what they tell us about they systems in which they are found, but also for the insights they provide into control system architecture in general.
Ignoring these researchers and their contributions will not stop them from probing our systems for weaknesses. It will not slow their method of sharing vulnerabilities. In fact, for many of these individuals threatening them or ignoring them simply ensures that they will go that much further to gain the recognition which is their due.
Dealing with the Devil You Know
Just because these unrepentant researchers are unlikely to play by any rules we set up does not mean that they can or should be ignored. Ignoring them or persecuting them will only drive them deeper underground and perhaps even into the arms of the criminal or terrorist organizations or unfriendly states that would find their discoveries useful.
No one wants an unresolved vulnerability published for the world to see; it raises the risk of the exploitation of that vulnerability way too high. But with it seeing the light of public exposure this also allows the vendor and owners to immediately begin working on the means to counter or mitigate the vulnerability or at least make it more difficult to exploit.
An exploitable vulnerability that is kept from the control system community while it is distributed or sold through the underground economy is much more dangerous because no one is working to resolve the issue. Waiting for such vulnerabilities to be used in a destructive attack on a critical infrastructure control system to start work on fixing the problem is much too late.
What we need to do is to find a way to encourage these electronic loners to become part of the solution to the problem that they pose. We should encourage them to not only find these vulnerabilities but to come up with interim solutions that system owners can use to protect their systems while the vendor is trying to fix the vulnerability. If we can convince them that the system owners are innocent bystanders and deserve their help against the inadequate response from vendors, then we can turn these outlaw researchers into some sort of folk hero in the control system security community instead of a semi-criminal outsider.
Discuss the Issue
We need to continue this discussion and widen the audience that is participating. We need to include more of the system owners, particularly the ones without Jake’s system expertise. We need to include more researchers that wear white, grey and black hats. We need to include system vendors and vendors of fixes to those systems. We need to include the regulatory community that is becoming more involved in cybersecurity issues. And we need to include the general public because they are the ones that are most likely to be affected without having any measure of control over the situation.