Should U.S. Hackers Fix Cybersecurity Holes or Exploit Them?

Maybe someday we'll patch vulnerabilities faster than the enemy can use them in an attack, but we're not there yet.
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Cyber warfare expert John Bumgarner holds a laptop while posing for a 2011 portrait. (Reuters)

There’s a debate going on about whether the U.S. government—specifically, the NSA and United States Cyber Command—should stockpile Internet vulnerabilities or disclose and fix them. It's a complicated problem, and one that starkly illustrates the difficulty of separating attack and defense in cyberspace.

A software vulnerability is a programming mistake that allows an adversary access into that system. Heartbleed is a recent example, but hundreds are discovered every year.

Unpublished vulnerabilities are called “zero-day” vulnerabilities, and they’re very valuable because no one is protected. Someone with one of those can attack systems world-wide with impunity.

When someone discovers one, he can either use it for defense or for offense. Defense means alerting the vendor and getting it patched.  Lots of vulnerabilities are discovered by the vendors themselves and patched without any fanfare.  Others are discovered by researchers and hackers.  A patch doesn’t make the vulnerability go away, but most users protect themselves by patch their systems regularly.

Offense means using the vulnerability to attack others.  This is the quintessential zero-day, because the vendor doesn't even know the vulnerability exists until it starts being used by criminals or hackers.  Eventually the affected software's vendor finds out—the timing depends on how extensively the vulnerability is used—and issues a patch to close the vulnerability.

If an offensive military cyber unit discovers the vulnerability—or a cyber-weapons arms manufacturer—it keeps that vulnerability secret for use to deliver a cyber-weapon. If it is used stealthily, it might remain secret for a long time. If unused, it’ll remain secret until someone else discovers it.

Discoverers can sell vulnerabilities.  There’s a rich market in zero-days for attack purposes—both military/commercial and black markets.  Some vendors offer bounties for vulnerabilities to incent defense, but the amounts are much lower.

The NSA can play either defense or offense. It can either alert the vendor and get a still-secret vulnerability fixed, or it can hold on to it and use it as to eavesdrop on foreign computer systems. Both are important U.S. policy goals, but the NSA has to choose which one to pursue. By fixing the vulnerability, it strengthens the security of the Internet against all attackers: other countries, criminals, hackers. By leaving the vulnerability open, it is better able to attack others on the Internet. But each use runs the risk of the target government learning of, and using for itself, the vulnerability—or of the vulnerability becoming public and criminals starting to use it.

There is no way to simultaneously defend U.S. networks while leaving foreign networks open to attack. Everyone uses the same software, so fixing us means fixing them, and leaving them vulnerable means leaving us vulnerable. As Harvard Law Professor Jack Goldsmith wrote, “every offensive weapon is a (potential) chink in our defense—and vice versa.”

To make matters even more difficult, there is an arms race going on in cyberspace. The Chinese, the Russians, and many other countries are finding vulnerabilities as well. If we leave a vulnerability unpatched, we run the risk of another country independently discovering it and using it in a cyber-weapon that we will be vulnerable to. But if we patch all the vulnerabilities we find, we won’t have any cyber-weapons to use against other countries.

Many people have weighed in on this debate. The president’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, convened post-Snowden, concluded (recommendation 30), that vulnerabilities should only be hoarded in rare instances and for short times. Cory Doctorow calls it a public health problem. I have said similar things. Dan Geer recommends that the U.S. government corner the vulnerabilities market and fix them all. Both the FBI and the intelligence agencies claim that this amounts to unilateral disarmament.

It seems like an impossible puzzle, but the answer hinges on how vulnerabilities are distributed in software.

If vulnerabilities are sparse, then it's obvious that every vulnerability we find and fix improves security. We render a vulnerability unusable, even if the Chinese government already knows about it. We make it impossible for criminals to find and use it. We improve the general security of our software, because we can find and fix most of the vulnerabilities.

If vulnerabilities are plentiful—and this seems to be true—the ones the U.S. finds and the ones the Chinese find will largely be different. This means that patching the vulnerabilities we find won’t make it appreciably harder for criminals to find the next one. We don’t really improve general software security by disclosing and patching unknown vulnerabilities, because the percentage we find and fix is small compared to the total number that are out there.

But while vulnerabilities are plentiful, they’re not uniformly distributed. There are easier-to-find ones, and harder-to-find ones. Tools that automatically find and fix entire classes of vulnerabilities, and coding practices that eliminate many easy-to-find ones, greatly improve software security.  And when person finds a vulnerability, it is likely that another person soon will, or recently has, found the same vulnerability.  Heartbleed, for example, remained undiscovered for two years, and then two independent researchers discovered it within two days of each other.  This is why it is important for the government to err on the side of disclosing and fixing.

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Bruce Schneier is a correspondent for The Atlantic and the chief technology officer of Co3 Systems, a computer-security firm. A security and technology specialist, his latest book is Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive.

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