A proposal on the "responsible disclosure of security vulnerabilities" has been withdrawn from consideration by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), after criticism that the issue was too political to be decided by the Net's prime technical standards body.
Discussions on the IETF's Security Area Advisory Group mailing list reflected the belief that the document is "out of scope" as it does not deal with technical protocols.
Because of this, Steve Christey, lead information security engineer for government engineering firm Mitre, and Chris Wysopal, director of research at security consultants @stake, have decided to take their ideas elsewhere.
"There does not appear to be any way to achieve consensus on this issue, regardless of the merits of the current draft or any future document that may attempt to describe disclosure recommendations," Christey said in a message to the SAAG list yesterday.
"We are currently identifying other forums that may be more suitable for discussion of the current document and future revisions. If we can't find such a forum, we will create one."
Although Christey is careful to thank security experts on the list for their feedback, the decision to withdraw the proposals from discussion is a clear setback.
The proposals seek to strike a compromise between those who favour full disclosure of security problems (including us) and software vendors, who want to control information about security risks.
The guidelines, drawn up by the Organisation for Internet Safety, clearly follow Microsoft's agenda (recently articulated by Scott Culp, manager of the Microsoft Security Response Centre) that openly discussing exploits is creating "information anarchy".
Microsoft is attempting to throttle the exchange of vulnerability information relevant to their famously buggy products, clearly in hopes that patches and fixes can be fed to consumers discreetly.
Briefly, the "responsible disclosure of security vulnerabilities" scheme requires vendors to withhold detailed security data and to suppress the exchange of exploit code, which, unfortunately, is the only means of verifying that a patch actually works.
Vendors will exercise "best efforts" to avoid disclosing details that can be used to exploit a vulnerability for a period of 30 days from the initial discovery.
After this grace period, or if the Blackhat community begins exploiting it sooner, "additional details" may be released. These details will of course not be sufficient to exploit the flaw, or to test the patch.
There will be exceptions for the Federal authorities, recognised infrastructure protection organisations and "other communities in which enforceable frameworks exist to deter onward uncontrolled distribution."
While it sounds like a common-sense proposal for limiting damage by restricting access to exploits, the effect of this scheme is likely to be a reduction in security.
For one thing, there are a number of highly-respected vendors who believe in full disclosure, and who regard Microsoft's partnership arrangement, in which they obviously won't be able to participate, as an assault on the way they do business.
Even those who believe vendors need time to prepare patches before vulnerabilities are made public have criticisms of the proposals.
Bruce Schneier, founder and chief technology officer of Counterpane Internet Security, said that the proposals are too vague.
"There are so many suggestions and so few requirements that someone could do almost anything and then claim to be following the document. And I believe the document could be used by companies to justify withholding vulnerability information and ignoring security problems," Schneier wrote in his Crypto-gram newsletter last weekend.
The threat of full disclosure of recent SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol) vulnerabilities forced companies to patch their systems, Schneier argues.
"To the extent that following the IETF document reduces that threat, it also reduces our security," said Schneier, who added that the document should more properly be called "Limited Disclosure," or maybe "Slow Disclosure."
"Whether or not it is responsible is still a matter of debate," he added. ®