Dangers of Reporting a Computer Vulnerability
This essay makes the case that there no way to safely report a computer vulnerability.
The first reason is that whenever you do something “unnecessary,” such as reporting a vulnerability, police wonder why, and how you found out. Police also wonders if you found one vulnerability, could you have found more and not reported them? Who did you disclose that information to? Did you get into the web site, and do anything there that you shouldn’t have? It’s normal for the police to think that way. They have to. Unfortunately, it makes it very uninteresting to report any problems.
A typical difficulty encountered by vulnerability researchers is that administrators or programmers often deny that a problem is exploitable or is of any consequence, and request a proof. This got Eric McCarty in trouble—the proof is automatically a proof that you breached the law, and can be used to prosecute you! Thankfully, the administrators of the web site believed our report without trapping us by requesting a proof in the form of an exploit and fixed it in record time. We could have been in trouble if we had believed that a request for a proof was an authorization to perform penetration testing. I believe that I would have requested a signed authorization before doing it, but it is easy to imagine a well-meaning student being not as cautious (or I could have forgotten to request the written authorization, or they could have refused to provide it…). Because the vulnerability was fixed in record time, it also protected us from being accused of the subsequent break-in, which happened after the vulnerability was fixed, and therefore had to use some other means. If there had been an overlap in time, we could have become suspects.
Interesting essay, and interesting comments. And here’s an article on the essay.
Remember, full disclosure is the best tool we have to improve security. It’s an old argument, and I wrote about it way back in 2001. If people can’t report security vulnerabilities, then vendors won’t fix them.
EDITED TO ADD (5/26): Robert Lemos on “Ethics and the Eric McCarty Case.”