INSIGHTS | May 11, 2015

Vulnerability disclosure the good and the ugly

I can’t believe I continue to write about disclosure problems. More than a decade ago, I started disclosing vulnerabilities to vendors and working with them to develop fixes. Since then, I have reported hundreds of vulnerabilities. I often think I have seen everything, and yet, I continue to be surprised over and over again. I wrote a related blog post a year and a half ago (Vulnerability bureaucracy: Unchanged after 12 years), and I will continue to write about disclosure problems until it’s no longer needed.


Everything is becoming digital. Vendors are producing software for the first time or with very little experience, and many have no security knowledge. As a result, insecure software is being deployed worldwide. The Internet of Things (IoT), industrial devices and industrial systems (SCADA/ICS), Smart City technology, automobile systems, and so on are insecure and getting worse instead of better.


Besides lacking of security knowledge, many vendors do not know how to deal with vulnerability reports. They don’t know what to do when an individual researcher or company privately discloses a vulnerability to them, how to properly communicate the problem, or how to fix it. Many vendors haven’t planned for security patches. Basically, they never considered the possibility of a latent security flaw. This creates many of the problems the research community commonly faces.


When IOActive recently disclosed vulnerabilities in CyberLock products, we faced problems, including threats from CyberLock’s lawyers related to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). CyberLock’s response is a very good example of a vendor that does not know how to properly deal with vulnerability reports.


On the other hand, we had a completely different experience when we recently reported vulnerabilities to Lenovo. Lenovo’s response was very professional and collaborative. They even publicly acknowledged our collaboration:


“Lenovo’s development and security teams worked directly with IOActive regarding their System Update vulnerability findings, and we value their expertise in identifying and responsibly reporting them.”

Source: (no longer active)

IOActive approached both cases in the same way, but with two completely different reactions and results.


We always try to contact the affected vendor through a variety of channels and offer our collaboration to ensure a fix is in place before we disclose our research to the public. We invest a lot of time and resources to helping vendors understand the vulnerabilities we find. We have calls with developers and managers, test their fixes, and so on, all for free without expecting anything in return. We do not propose nor discuss business opportunities; our only motive is to see that the vulnerabilities get fixed. We have a great track record; we’ve reported dozens of vulnerabilities and collaborated with many vendors and CERTs too.


When a vendor is nonresponsive, we feel that the best solution is usually to disclose the vulnerability to the public. We do this as a last resort, as no vendor patch or solution will be available in such a case. We do not want to be complicit in hiding a flaw. Letting people know can force the vendor to address the vulnerability.

Dealing with vulnerability reports shouldn’t be this difficult. I’m going to give some advice, based on my experience, to help companies avoid vulnerability disclosure problems and improve the security of their products:


  • Clearly display a contact email for vulnerability reports on the company/product website
  • Continuously monitor that email address and instantly acknowledge when you get a vulnerability report
  • Agree on response procedures including regular timeframes for updating status information after receiving the report
  • Always be collaborative with the researcher/company, even if you don’t like the reporter
  • Always thank the researcher/company for the report, even if you don’t like the reporter
  • Ask the reporter for help if needed, and work together with the reporter to find better solutions
  • Agree on a time for releasing a fix
  • Agree on a time for publicly disclosing the vulnerability
  • Release the fix on time and alert customers

That’s it! Not so difficult. Any company that produces software should follow these simple guidelines at a minimum.

It comes down to this: If you produce software, consider the possibility that your product will have security vulnerabilities and plan accordingly. You will do yourself a big favor, save money, and possibly save your company’s reputation too.