March 29, 2012 | By Marcia Hofmann and Trevor Timm

“Zero-day” exploit sales should be key point in cybersecurity debate

Last week, Forbes’ Andy Greenberg investigated a dangerous but largely underreported problem in Internet security: the sale of zero-day exploits to customers not intending to fix the flaws. Zero-day exploits are hacking techniques that take advantage of software vulnerabilities that haven’t been disclosed to the developer or the public. Some companies have built successful businesses by discovering security flaws in software such as operating systems and popular browsers like Google Chrome and Microsoft Internet Explorer, and then selling zero-day exploits to high-paying customers—which are often governments.

France-based VUPEN is one of the highest-profile firms trafficking in zero-day exploits. Earlier this month at the CanSecWest information security conference, VUPEN declined to participate in the Google-sponsored Pwnium hacking competition, where security researchers were awarded up to $60,000 if they could defeat the Chrome browser’s security and then explain to Google how they did it. Instead, VUPEN—sitting feet away from Google engineers running the competition—successfully compromised Chrome, but then refused to disclose their method to Google to help fix the flaw and make the browser safer for users.

“We wouldn’t share this with Google for even $1 million,” said VUPEN founder Chaouki Bekrar. “We don’t want to give them any knowledge that can help them in fixing this exploit or other similar exploits. We want to keep this for our customers.” VUPEN, which also “pwned” Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, bragged it had an exploit for “every major browser,” as well as Microsoft Word, Adobe Reader, and the Google Android and Apple iOS operating systems.

While VUPEN might be the most vocal, it is certainly not the only company selling high-tech weaponry on the zero-day exploit market. Established U.S. companies Netragard, Endgame, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon are also in the business, according to Greenberg. He has also detailed a price list for various zero-day exploits, with attacks for popular browsers selling for well over $100,000 each and an exploit for Apple’s iOS going for a quarter million.

But who exactly are these companies selling to? No one seems to really know, at least among people not directly involved in these clandestine exploit dealings. VUPEN claims it only sells to NATO governments and “NATO partners.” The NATO partners list includes such Internet Freedom-loving countries as Belarus, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Russia. But it’s a safe bet, as even VUPEN’s founder noted, that the firm’s exploits “could still fall into the wrong hands” of any regime through re-selling or slip-ups, even if VUPEN is careful. 

Regardless of who the buyers are, any security researcher selling zero-day exploits to those who take advantage of vulnerabilities rather than fixing the software is responsible for making the Internet less secure for users. The existence of a marketplace for such transactions does not legitimize the practice, and security researchers should never turn a blind eye to their ethical responsibility to help improve technology. We should help ensure the Internet promotes freedom and safety, and is not a system to control and oppress.

The governments who buy zero-day exploits also bear responsibility here. The administration has repeatedly warned of a crippling cyber-attack to our infrastructure and Congress is in the midst of debating an expansive new "cybersecurity" bill that, as EFF previously explained, will likely invade users’ privacy in the name of promoting Internet security. Yet the sale and use of exploits that leave ordinary users of popular software vulnerable—a real cybersecurity threat—remains unmentioned in this cybersecurity debate.

The U.S. government has the ability to make us more secure right now with no new legislation. Anyone—including the U.S. government—who has knowledge of security vulnerabilities should notify the affected companies and help fix the problems. Keeping flaws under wraps makes millions of Internet users less safe. If exploits are used to conduct attacks on network infrastructure, either in other countries or the U.S., those who sell exploits could be complicit in such acts.

A good cybersecurity discussion would address this issue head-on. If the U.S. government is serious about securing the Internet, any bill, directive, or policy related to cybersecurity should work toward ensuring that vulnerabilities are fixed, and explicitly disallow any clandestine operations within the government that do not further this goal. Unfortunately, if these exploits are being bought by governments for offensive purposes, then there is pressure to selectively harden sensitive targets while keeping the attack secret from everyone else, leaving technology—and its users—vulnerable to attack.

As EFF has stated previously, this is "security for the 1%," and it makes the rest of us less safe.

UPDATE: A prior version of this post stated that in Andy Greenberg's story, a hacker named the Grugq "implies the only reason he doesn't sell to Middle Eastern countries is they don’t pay enough." In fact, the article said the Grugq "limits his sales to the American and European agencies and contractors not merely out of ethical concerns, but also because they pay more." We regret the error.

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