Intelligence agencies are among the most prolific buyers of zero-day computer security flaws that can be used to spy on enemies foreign and domestic, or so it's claimed – and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has launched a lawsuit to find out what exactly they are doing with them.
"Since these vulnerabilities potentially affect the security of users all over the world, the public has a strong interest in knowing how these agencies are weighing the risks and benefits of using zero days instead of disclosing them to vendors," said EFF global policy analyst Eva Galperin.
The foundation's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit names the NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), and was inspired by the discovery of the Heartbleed flaw in OpenSSL – which the NSA has denied it knew about beforehand, even though reports suggest otherwise.
After the password-leaking Heartbleed bug emerged, the White House cyber-security coordinator Michael Daniel wrote that the US government wasn't hoarding vast amounts of zero-day security flaws – so-called because there are no software patches to fix them at present time – to use for espionage purposes.
But Daniel admitted Uncle Sam does have some bugs stockpiled: these are assessed under a "Vulnerability Equities Process," to decide when the security industry should be told and when the intelligence agency can keep back useful holes, which are used to compromise targets.
The EFF submitted a request for the documents describing this process on May 6 and the ODNI promised to process its request with all possible speed. After nearly two months the EFF has lost patience and has gone to court to get the data.
"This FOIA suit seeks transparency on one of the least understood elements of the U.S. intelligence community's toolset: security vulnerabilities," EFF legal fellow Andrew Crocker said. "These documents are important to the kind of informed debate that the public and the administration agree needs to happen in our country." ®