Until just last week, the U.S. government kept up the charade that its use of a stockpile of security vulnerabilities for hacking was a closely held secret.1 In fact, in response to EFF’s FOIA suit to get access to the official U.S. policy on zero days, the government redacted every single reference to “offensive” use of vulnerabilities. To add insult to injury, the government’s claim was that even admitting to offensive use would cause damage to national security. Now, in the face of EFF’s brief marshaling overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the charade is over.
In response to EFF’s motion for summary judgment, the government has disclosed a new version of the Vulnerabilities Equities Process, minus many of the worst redactions. First and foremost, it now admits that the “discovery of vulnerabilities in commercial information technology may present competing ‘equities’ for the [government’s] offensive and defensive mission.” That might seem painfully obvious—a flaw or backdoor in a Juniper router is dangerous for anyone running a network, whether that network is in the U.S. or Iran. But the government’s failure to adequately weigh these “competing equities” was so severe that in 2013 a group of experts appointed by President Obama recommended that the policy favor disclosure “in almost all instances for widely used code.” [.pdf].
The newly disclosed version of the Vulnerabilities Equities Process (VEP) also officially confirms what everyone already knew: the use of zero days isn’t confined to the spies. Rather, the policy states that the “law enforcement community may want to use information pertaining to a vulnerability for similar offensive or defensive purposes but for the ultimate end of law enforcement.” Similarly it explains that “counterintelligence equities can be defensive, offensive, and/or law enforcement-related” and may “also have prosecutorial responsibilities.” Given that the government is currently prosecuting users for committing crimes over Tor hidden services, and that it identified these individuals using vulnerabilities called a “Network Investigative Technique”, this too doesn’t exactly come as a shocker.
Just a few weeks ago, the government swore that even acknowledging the mere fact that it uses vulnerabilities offensively “could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security.” That’s a standard move in FOIA cases involving classified information, even though the government unnecessarily classifies documents at an astounding rate. In this case, the government relented only after nearly a year and a half of litigation by EFF. The government would be well advised to stop relying on such weak secrecy claims—it only risks undermining its own credibility.
The new version of the VEP also reveals significantly more information about the general process the government follows when a vulnerability is identified. In a nutshell, an agency that discovers a zero day is responsible for invoking the VEP, which then provides for centralized coordination and weighing of equities among all affected agencies. Along with a declaration from an official at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, this new information provides more background on the reasons why the government decided to develop an overarching zero day policy in the first place: it “recognized that not all organizations see the entire picture of vulnerabilities, and each organization may have its own equities and concerns regarding the prioritization of patches and fixes, as well as its own distinct mission obligations.” We now know the VEP was finalized in February 2010, but the government apparently failed to implement it in any substantial way, prompting the presidential review group’s recommendation to prioritize disclosure over offensive hacking.
We’re glad to have forced a little more transparency on this important issue, but the government is still foolishly holding on to a few last redactions, including refusing to name which agencies participate in the VEP. That’s just not supportable, and we’ll be in court next month to argue that the names of these agencies must be disclosed.