Security experts question release of exploit data

When word of the "Code Red" worm first came out a month ago, a security firm released details on the worm's exploit code on the same day that Microsoft Corp. released a patch on how to fix the vulnerability in its Internet Information Service (IIS).

The firm, eEye Digital Security Inc. in Aliso Viejo, California, has been credited with discovering the worm, which has reportedly infected hundreds of thousands of systems that run all versions of IIS on Windows NT and Windows 2000. However, when the company posted its analysis of the worm's capabilities on its Web site on June 18, it also included detailed information that security experts said hackers could easily use to do more damage.

The company, which develops and sells scanning and detection software for Microsoft's IIS, referred to the step-by-step process as "The Exploit, as taught by Ryan 'Overflow Ninja' Permeh." Security experts questioned whether a company should be releasing exploit information that can be used by hackers.

A Microsoft Corp. spokesman decried the amount of information contained in the warning issued by eEye Digital Security, calling it a "recipe" for hackers. Scott Culp, program manager at Microsoft's Security Response Center, said although eEye notified Microsoft in a timely manner, the amount of exploit-related information released crossed the line of responsible reporting.

"We don't believe that that serves anybody's larger interests," said Culp. "Where we disagree with eEye is on the issue of how much information to provide on how to exploit the vulnerability." Culp said Microsoft supports reporting that simply lists the systems affected, what the worm can do and what customers can do to protect their systems.

"It definitely doesn't feel right," said Bob Holewa, director of technical marketing at Top Layer Networks, a Westboro, Massachusetts-based network monitoring company. "The task [of defending systems] is difficult enough," he said. By releasing detailed information, eEye may have provided less sophisticated hackers a shortcut to developing dangerous worms, he said. "We wouldn't necessarily condone that," Holewa said.

Marc Maiffret, who goes by the title of chief hacking officer at eEye Digital Security, said the information released by his company was not, in fact, "exploit code," and doesn't provide anything that a skilled hacker wouldn't already know.

"Basically, we explained what happens when the buffer overflow [occurs]," said Maiffret. "There's a lot of people that are saying this is dishonest who don't have a really good grasp of the computer underground. There are a very small number of people who have the technical ability to turn this type of exploit into an attack."

However, Chris Rouland, director of the X-Force vulnerability research unit at Internet Security Systems Inc. in Atlanta, said eEye has in the past released enough exploit code on other vulnerabilities that hackers could take their recent advisory on the Code Red worm and simply "start hacking."

The exploits released recently by eEye "are now the reference code for hackers," said Rouland. "There is enough code in the [Code Red worm] advisory to drop it into one of their old exploits and start hacking. We question the business value of providing [so much] information that somebody can exploit it."

Ronald Dick, director of the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center in Washington, said the issue of how much information to release has been the subject of a long-standing debate in the security community. There are no clear answers to how much is too much, he said.

Internet worms like Code Red "are worms that are taking advantage of known vulnerabilities for which there are fixes," said Dick. "We issued a warning in June, everybody issued warnings, and yet we didn't reach a significant number of people who utilize that software.

"Until we can establish a process to reach everyone, the Internet is going to continually be vulnerable."

Scott Blake, director of security strategies at Bindview Corp., a maker of Windows NT risk management software in Houston, said that while full disclosure isn't the way the security industry should be sharing information, there is really no other way. "There are some people who believe that the only way to get people to install the patches is to hand over a loaded gun," he said.

It is "almost never necessary to release exploit code to the world to demonstrate a vulnerability," added John Pescatore, an analyst at Stamford, Connecticut-based Gartner Inc. Although he didn't have detailed information on eEye's practices, Pescatore said, "We should all actively boycott vendors who find vulnerabilities, and at the same time they notify the vendor, [they] issue a press release giving the vulnerability much more exposure than it deserves."

Meanwhile, Sydney-based eEye Digital Security distributor, Janteknology has released a free CodeRed Scanner, allowing local organisations to immediately determine their vulnerability to the worm. CodeRed Scanner is available for download from the company's website, www.janteknology.com.au

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Dan Verton

Computerworld

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