The MSRC – now and then

It’s amazing to compare how the Microsoft Security Response Center handles vulnerability disclosures versus how things were just 10 or 12 short years ago.

Here’s a typical disclosure process 10 years ago (based on a very true story):

Us: (sending an email to secure@microsoft.com) we’ve discovered a vulnerability in an office product. Here are the technical details. Can you confirm the issue and let us know when it’s patched?
Microsoft: Thanks for reporting, bla bla, we’ll get back to you soon

[about a week passes]

Us: Hi MSRC, any news about our office vulnerability?
[no reply]
[Sending a personal email to an MSRC friend to speed things up]
Microsoft: Oh, thanks for reminding us. We’ll check with the office team

[another few days pass]

Us: Hello? Anybody there?
Microsoft: Oh, yes. That vulnerability thing. Here’s what we decided: (a) It’s not a vulnerability. (b) it’s not a problem with the office product but with the world (or the RFC) (c) The office team can’t recreate it (d) even if the vulnerability was real, it wouldn’t be exploited in real world scenarios
Us: are you kidding us? Did you actually look at the sample code we gave you?
[a few days pass. We are pondering if to go complete full disclosure or give them time to digest]

Microsoft: Ok, this time we actually read your advisory and yes, it seems to work. But it’s just a denial of service. Nobody will ever exploit it because of … [something that heap spraying/DEP bypass/code mutation made look ridiculous about a year later]
Us: [starting the get mad] look guys. We sent you PoC code. You actually want us to write an exploit code for you?
Microsoft: yes, that would help convince our developers

[Us, spending time writing code so that Microsoft is convinced to fix their own products based on free information while wasting our precious time]

Us: here it is
Microsoft: oh, wow, it really does run code. Ok, we’ll fix it in the next release cycle which should be right after the democratic primaries of 2012.

Us: Ok, forget it. We’re going full disclosure

Microsoft: no, wait wait wait. We found your name on the world wide web and now realize you’re legit. Ok, we’ll fix it. Happy now? We might even mention your name in our advisory if/when that happens.

If it sounds familiar, that means you were disclosing vulnerabilities to vendors in the early 2000′s or late 1990′s. If you think I’m exaggerating, it’s only because you didn’t.

But here’s the amazing thing. Just a few years later, some radical changes started to happen. The big dysfunctional dinosaur that was MSRC became an efficient, friendly and if I didn’t know it, I would think it’s a different company altogether. Here’s a real recent discussion:

Us: Hello MSRC, here’s information about an office vulnerability
Microsoft: Hi, thanks for reporting. I checked the information, went over the sample code and have some technical questions [some intelligent questions here, basically they are doubting the findings but being really careful to check all the angles first]

[technical discussion continues for a couple of days with questions and answers going back and forth]

Microsoft: Ok, we get the picture now. Thanks for reporting. Here’s the guy that is going to be responsible for your case.
[a few days pass]
Microsoft: Ok, we now know it’s a [...] vulnerability and not a [...] one. We’ll pass it to the relevant team, just wanted to keep you posted
[further proactive updates and niceties continue until disclosure time. Credits, the end.]

What could have possibly caused this radical change that made MSRC focus on the technical side instead of the PR, not to mention being so research-friendly? New team? New procedures? Full disclosure forced them to see the truth? Too many beers at defcon finally showed them the light? Whatever they are taking, I wish they could spread some around. Most of the other vendors could use that. Yes, I’m looking at you Google.

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  • http://alienvault.com/ics Chris Blask

    They took a strong dose of Capitalism.

    It is terrible business to blow off people who find problems with your products – unless you think you can get away with it. Prior to (about then) as an IT vendor you usually could get away with it, by and large, today you cannot. Any IT vendor with an ounce of sense (yes, I am looking at you, Cisco) will enthusiastically and professionally engage with researchers who find weaknesses.

    Vendors in the ICS (SCADA) space are learning those lessons now. For years they could brush it all off, and they often think they still can. This will begin to hurt their businesses and, tada!, they will be good corporate citizens.

  • http://www.BeyondSecurity.com Aviram

    Well said Chris. I think the ICS vendors will see their real pain is still yet to come.