Apple had two months to fix critical QuickTime bug, says researcher

A jump in duplicate vulnerability disclosures means vendors must patch faster

A critical bug in QuickTime was reported to Apple two months before a second researcher independently revealed the vulnerability this week, the director of a bug bounty program said today.

The duplicate discovery was just one of an increasing number of overlapping vulnerability reports that show vendors must patch faster, said Aaron Portnoy, security team lead for HP TippingPoint's Zero Day Initiative (ZDI), the largest vulnerability payment program in the country.

"Overlapping discoveries are occurring much more often," said Portnoy. "This just reinforces the reasoning to put disclosure deadlines on vulnerabilities."

In 2007, ZDI had four sets of duplicate vulnerability reports, where more than one researcher submitted the same bug before the flaw was fixed and made public. The number of overlapping vulnerabilities fell to one set in 2008, then soared to 18 in 2009.

Through August, ZDI has logged 13 duplicate vulnerabilities, on pace to reach 20 for 2010, an 11% increase over last year.

The increase is proof, said Portnoy, that multiple researchers often find the same flaw independently, a tenant of those who believe that researchers are in the right when they take bugs public to put pressure on vendors to patch. By that line of thinking, if one researcher has found a flaw -- even if it's kept private until it's patched -- others have probably also uncovered the bug. And some of them may be ready to exploit the vulnerability in the wild long before a fix is available.

This week's QuickTime bug is a case in point, said Portnoy.

"One of our researchers submitted this, and we reported it to Apple on June 30," said Portnoy. So far, Apple has not responded to ZDI's bug report.

Portnoy blasted Apple for wasting the opportunity to patch the bug before it went public. "We gave this to Apple two months ago, and a fix requires no testing," said Portnoy. "I can't understand it. It's literally a single parameter [in QuickTime]. I could have completely solved this within a day."

On Monday, Spanish researcher Ruben Santamarta published information about the bug in the QuickTime plug-in for Microsoft 's Internet Explorer (IE), and traced the flaw to Apple's failure to clean up code after developers dropped the "_Marshaled_pUnk" function.

Hackers only need to entice users to a malicious site hosting exploit code, said Santamarta, who added that his exploit works when someone browses with IE on a machine running Windows XP, Vista or Windows 7 that has QuickTime 7.x or the older QuickTime 6.x installed.

Since then, attack code has been added to Metasploit, a popular open-source hacking toolkit, and reports have surfaced that malicious sites are already hosting the exploit and using it to compromise PCs.

Last month, ZDI announced it would give vendors six months to patch a submitted bug before releasing some information about the vulnerability, a major change from earlier policy, which mandated that it keep quiet until flaws had been fixed.

"That wouldn't have helped in this instance," Portnoy acknowledged. "But if [Apple] had patched it, they could have avoided all this bad press."

Duplicate discoveries are only going to increase, said Portnoy. "Vulnerability research is appealing to a wider crowd, and there's more information than ever available to them," he said. "It should prompt [vendors] to patch quicker because it's going to happen more often."

After Santamarta published his findings, ZDI posted an advisory that credited a researcher identified as "HBelite" with submitting the vulnerability.

"We don't have any way to force vendors to patch," said Portnoy. "It's a bit of a battle between us and the vendors. But [Santamarta's disclosure] is one way to get their attention."

Apple did not immediately reply to a request seeking comment on its patch plans for QuickTime, or to questions about why it had not fixed the flaw in the two months between ZDI's report and this week's disclosure by Santamarta.

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Gregg Keizer

Computerworld (US)

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