A Note on Security Disclosures

[This was originally published in ;Login magazine. A pretty PDF version is available with the charts that are missing below.]

In recent months, a handful of outspoken security professionals have begun
to openly challenge the philosophy of full disclosure. For years, most of
us in the security community have held this philosophy as a basic tenant
of vulnerability management. Software vendors have a notoriously bad track record in handling bugs and vulnerabilities in their products. Rather than practice due diligence and handle the incident swiftly and openly, vendors have not given these matters the attention they deserve. Open communication between security consultants or hackers who find these vulnerabilities and the vendors they report to is more of a myth than anything, despite what the vendors would like you to believe. Due to this, full disclosure has kicked in causing security types to release all of the details to public forums. In some cases, they include working exploit code as proof of concept, to “gently” prod the vendor into dealing with the vulnerability in short order.

There are essentially three levels of disclosure with regards to security
vulnerability information seen today.

  1. General information indicating a vulnerability in a specific software
    package or operating system. Oftentimes the information is extremely
    vague and inadequate for administrators to fix the problem
    themselves. CERT advisories and similar organizations fit in this category.
  2. Detailed technical information, often in the form of an advisory. Technical details allow security personnel to fully understand and often fix the problem without any additional information. No exploit code or
    “proof-of-concept” code is included. Security firms and consultants typically release in this fashion.
  3. working exploit code. This is sometimes accompanied with a technical
    advisory explaining the vulnerability in depth. Other times it may only include a few notes in comments at the top of the program. In some cases, the code released is intentionally left broken in an attempt to foil script kids.

The recent argument suggests that including exploit code while disclosing
vulnerabilities has a downside that severely outweighs any upside
previously thought. The perceived upside is that by including working
exploit code, vendors are forced to respond to the issue quickly, lest
thousands of their customers remain vulnerable to the new exploit. While
this indeed puts extra pressure on the vendors to fix the problem, it
potentially leaves thousands of vulnerable systems afterwards. While
software patches are available, there is nothing forcing administrators to
install them to negate the problem. At this point, full disclosure becomes
a dual edged sword.

The downside to all of this is that these exploit scripts and utilities
are available to anyone with a shred of computer know-how, who now have
the capability of breaking into remote systems. This in turn leads to the
“script kiddy” phenomenon, where legions of mostly unskilled wannabe
hackers use the tools to break in (and often deface the web page) of
systems around the Internet.

Much to the joy of some of these outspoken security professionals, there
exists hard data to back their claims. For months, they have been making
these claims with no real backing to support their arguments. As with any
person making claims with no proof, it is often easier to discount their
words as a bit fanatical, especially when their tone is elitist and
condescending. Using data collected by Attrition (attrition.org) along
with bugtraq archives at Security Focus (securityfocus.com), several cases
clearly emerge demonstrating the cause and effect between exploit code
release and web page defacement.

Before examining this data, several things should be considered. This is
not the silver bullet killing any and all doubt you may have had in the
outspoken. Rather, this is data that proves one piece of the puzzle. As
with all things, this is not a black and white issue. Other issues must be
considered in addition to the ideas presented above.

Several cases stand out in the past two years that demonstrate the
downside to releasing exploit code. Listed below are seven vulnerabilities
that allow an intruder to gain some form of elevated privileges remotely.
Included with each is the approximate date the exploit code was made
public for each along with other thoughts or comments.

[Graph in magazine, not preserved on original web copy I kept.]

“std1” – automountd/statd remote buffer overflow (unix)
Jan 4, 1999 http://www.securityfocus.com/archive/1/11788
Shortly after public disclosure, there is a small spike in defacements
per day. In the following months, an incredible growth begins.

“cf” – Cold Fusion l0pht advisory w/ exploit code (nt)
Apr 20, 1999 http://www.securityfocus.com/archive/1/13377
Other problems in the Cold Fusion package came to light in
Phrack 54 (Dec 25, 1998), but did not include detailed exploit
information. Based on the graph, it seems the release of the
CF exploit resulted in more defacements per day.

“iis” – IIS Hack eEye advisory (nt)
Jun 16, 1999 http://www.eeye.com/html/Advisories/AD19990608-3.html

“msadc” – RDS/MSADC RFP advisory (nt)
Jun 23, 1999 http://www.wiretrip.net/rfp/p/doc.asp?id=1&iface=2
The combination of IIS Hack and the MSADC exploit being released at
approximately the same time lead to two small spikes. Because of
difficulty in getting the exploit code to work early on, it is believed
the incredible spike in the following months is more indicative of the
exploits being public. During this time, a large percentage of defacements
mirrored by Attrition appear to be NT based, and mostly a result of
the MSADC vulnerability.

“wu1” – wuftpd 2.5 remote buffer overflow (unix)
Nov 20, 1999 http://www.securityfocus.com/archive/1/35828
While the average number of defacements per day dropped steadily shortly
before and after its release, there is another noticeable spike shortly
after. Once again, it is believed the delay was caused by initial problems
in using the first versions of the exploit code. In the weeks after its
release, more versions of the exploit came out increasing the chances of
successful exploitation on a remote host.

“wu2” – wuftpd 2.6* remote buffer overflow (unix)
Jun 23, 2000 http://www.securityfocus.com/archive/1/66367
As seen before, a small increase can be seen before and after the release of the exploit code. Running into the approximate release of “std2”, the upward growth became even more noticeable.

“std2” – statd remote buffer overflow (unix)
Jul 16, 2000 http://www.securityfocus.com/archive/1/70306

“phpn” – PHP-Nuke news site administration
Aug 21, 2000 http://packetstorm.securify.com/0008-exploits/PHP-Nuke.c
Once again, a noticeable spike shortly after disclosure of the exploit information. During this time, a large percentage of defacements reported to Attrition were a result of this exploit. Because the attackers could post custom messages to a news application and not replace the entire page’s content, it is rather easy to identify which defacements were a direct result of this vulnerability.

While these eight examples are fairly clear, it should be noted that with
the disclosure of any remote exploit code, defacements tend to increase
shortly after. Depending on the operating systems affected, ease of use of
the exploit, and availability of vulnerable machines, the numbers do not
always shift so dramatically. Working with the Attrition mirror on a daily
basis makes one more aware of this trend.

A key part of the definition of ‘script kiddy’ is the lack of technical
skill s/he possesses. It is widely believed that most ‘script kids’ use
Windows machines themselves, and favor exploitation of Windows NT servers. In the cases where a Unix based exploit is simple enough to use (easy to compile, simple command line arguments, etc.), ‘script kids’ will shift from exploiting Windows machines and begin to attack Unix systems. The best example of this can be seen in the recent “wu2” (wuftpd 2.6) and
“std2” (statd) vulnerabilities. Not only did significant spikes occur shortly after public disclosure of exploit code, but a radical shift in the overall number of Windows and Unix operating systems being defaced occurred.

[Graph in magazine, not preserved on original web copy I kept.]

Despite a steady increase in Windows NT defacements for the last year, NT
systems are found defaced less often shortly after the two unix exploits were released. In keeping with this, Linux (exploit code for wu2/std2 was
written to exploit linux primarily) defacements climbed dramatically. Defacement groups that had previously been dominant on Windows platforms suddenly began to deface more and more Linux machines.

While the data points to a conclusion that publicizing exploit scripts is
harmful to the Internet community, that may not necessarily be the case.
Because web page defacement is a public event and a strong motivation of
many ‘script kiddies’, it provides a method to extract data to show the
trends and statistics above. However, one must consider the sequence of
events and results of exploits being created, but NOT being posted to a
public forum.

Unpublished exploit scripts are like currency in the hacker subculture.
The power of a single remote exploit that is unknown to vendors allows a
single person to potentially break into thousands of machines, often
times with no recognizable trace of how it was done. Many Intrusion
Detection Systems (IDS) will not recognize the fingerprints of these new
exploits. The hackers who hold these scripts typically do not deface web
pages, or perform any action that would draw undue attention to them. To
do so brings more attention to their actions and creates a better chance
that someone will figure out how they are compromising machines, and what
the new vulnerability is.

In some cases, these exploits circulate in the underground for up to a
year before being made public. If even a dozen hackers have such an
exploit while actively using it over a one year period, the damage pales
compared to a few dozen web defacements that occur as a result of an
exploit being made public. While it is unfortunate to see a site hacked as
a result of public disclosure of a vulnerability, it really becomes one of
the necessary evils in doing so. One has to balance the sites being hacked
in one hand verses a vendor patch that will allow thousands of sites to be
protected against the exploit.

As I wrote this article, I had constant reminders of everything covered
above. No less than 20 defacements occurred in the process of writing this.
No doubt some occur as a result of exploit scripts being made public,
fueling the so called ‘script kids’. Equally so, some of these probably
occur from classical attacks such as password guessing, sniffers, or non
public exploits that haven’t crossed bugtraq yet. Is releasing exploit
code as evil as some are now saying? I think that is answered by which
side of the sword you’d rather be cut with.

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