Full Disclosure and Why Vendors Hate it

I recently did a talk at O’Reilly’s Ignite Boston party about the exciting iPhone forensics community emerging in law enforcement circles. With all of the excitement came shame, however; not for me, but for everyone in the audience who had bought an iPhone and put something otherwise embarrassing or private on it. Very few people, it seemed, were fully aware of just how much personal data the iPhone retains, in spite of the fact that Apple has known about it for quite some time. In spite of the impressive quantities of beer that get drunk at Tommy Doyle’s, I was surprised to find that many people were sober enough to turn their epiphany about privacy into a discussion about full disclosure. This has been a hot topic in the iPhone development community lately, and I have spent much time pleading with the different camps to return to embracing the practice of full disclosure.

The iPhone is shrouded in secrecy on both sides – Apple (of course) uses their secrets to instill hype (and gloss over many otherwise obvious privacy flaws), while the iPhone development community uses their secrets to ensure they can exploit future versions of the firwmware to find these flaws (along with all the other fun stuff we do). The secrets on both sides appear to have not only hurt the product, but run the risk of devolving an otherwise amazing device into the next surveillance fear. With the military and federal agencies testing the iPhone for possible use, some of the long-held secrets surrounding the iPhone even run the risk of affecting national security.

Secrecy and Hype

Secrecy is nothing new, especially with Apple. One of Apple’s greatest marketing strengths is this ability to add hype around their products by piquing the curiosity of the common geek. When it comes to such an amazing device as the iPhone, Apple seems to be very tolerant when it comes to grassroots hacking – tolerant enough to allow iPhone hackers to come and give talks about it in their store. It almost seems counter-intuitive that the more padlocks Apple places on the iPhone, the more the number of hackers who show up to pick them, and the more phones sold.

Obviously it isn’t just hackers buying iPhones, or the community would be much bigger. Part of what Apple is selling is the hacker image – an image that they ingeniously didn’t even have to invent. By simply locking up the device and attracting the right audiences, every tech store cashier within a thousand mile radius can buy an iPhone and feel like they are in the same class of uber-hacker as the ones who originally wrote the tools they’re using. With more secrets come more hype, and ultimately more people who buy the product to feel like they’re doing something “unsanctioned” or “cool” with it. Apple wants you to think that buying an iPhone is bucking the system – and all they had to do was lock it down. It is estimated that over a third of all iPhones sold have been jailbroken and unlocked, supporting at the very least the claim that a lot of people are unlocking their iPhones just because Apple said they can’t. Apple has proven that secrets really can sell products.

Secrecy and Privacy

The problem with too many secrets is that they frequently rub against the notion of privacy. One would think that secrets and privacy track together, but more often than not, secrets only mean that you don’t know your enemy, or what weapons they have to use against you. Secrets can be a hindrance to privacy because they leave the consumer exposed; not knowing if their home is secure, or if it’s going to be broken into. If you knew that the lock on your front door was broken, you’d probably be less inclined to leave a diamond ring lying on the foyer table. More dangerous is the idea that you have no right to know about your broken front door lock until after the locksmith fixes it. Everyone agrees that security flaws should be fixed; the looming issue is whether full disclosure is appropriate, or whether the “vendor first” approach is more responsible.

The thing with secrets is that someone always has one, and when it comes to protecting your data, a well-informed public is often better equipped to protect themselves than an ignorant one. In the digital world, the locks belong to the vendor, but the data is typically within either the customer or the consumer’s control; and if not the data, then certainly lawyers from hell are within reach. Longstanding arguments have been made that the vendor should be the first to notified, and the owner of the data should remain in ignorance until the front door lock has been fixed. Ironically, this is an argument I only ever hear coming from vendors (or those indoctrinated by vendors). Some vendors take this philosophy so seriously that they attempt to legally bind their own customers from releasing information about vulnerabilities to the public.

The inherent flaw in the “vendor first” argument is this: if you know about a particular vulnerability, chances are the bad guy already does too, and probably knew about it before you did. The bad guy is far more dangerous when the public doesn’t know what he knows, leaving the vendor’s customers and consumers both oblivious that there is any risk, or that an appropriate response to safeguard data is necessary. It is the customer and the consumer who have the most to lose from a breach, and bear the most liability should one occur. It seems that these two groups would be the best suited to also choose how the risk should be mitigated in the short term, and ultimately what procedures for auditing data should be taken after the fact.

If indeed the bad guy knows about the vulnerability, they are certainly already exploiting it, leaving one to wonder what the advantage is to keeping it secret from the public. It would seem as though it would be a rather large disadvantage if no-one is given the knowledge to do anything about it. It’s quite simple logic:

  • Full Disclosure Scenario: Vendor screws up grocery chain software. Grocery chain and consumers notified by newspaper. Grocery chain’s customers switch to cash, with minor loss in business. Grocery chain results in exponentially fewer losses than had they gotten sued by credit card companies for a breach.
  • Vendor First Scenario: Vendor screws up grocery chain software. Vendor is notified, takes 2 months to patch security vulnerability. Three grocery chains experience data breaches, with a fourth breach while the first three figure out what happened. All four grocery chains sued by credit card companies. Consumers and grocery chains suffer. Vendor has disclaimer, pays nothing.

Vendor First Means Vendor Benefits

Just who is the beneficiary of the “vendor first” concept exactly? Full disclosure ultimately protects the consumer, where as “vendor first” only protects the vendor. Full disclosure safeguards the consumer by getting people away from the dam until the leak is plugged. Take this more real-world scenario for example:

  • Full Disclosure Scenario: I announced last week that refurbished iPhones may contain previous customer data, and provided some blurred screenshots to show evidence of it. Both Apple and AT&T are suddenly listing refurbished iPhones as unavailable. Apple revises their refurbishing practices, and until the dam is permanently plugged, the flood of refurbished iPhones with customer data has been turned off.
  • Vendor First Scenario: Had I reported the problem to Apple directly, they may have decided to quietly fix their internal practices while still selling refurbished units. Additional units are sold with customer data on them, and no-one is any the wiser (except for the people stealing the data). In the time it takes Apple to revise their refurbishing practices, X additional phones containing customer data are leaked. The consumer loses, and might not even know it.

Consumers not only want to know about these issues so they can avoid them, but also want (the option, at least) to fix the problem themselves. This has happened on many occasions involving Microsoft software as well as many other vendors. As an interim fix, the consumer only need know about the person who fixed it, and load their patch. The iPhone Dev team did this with version 1.1.1 of the iPhone firmware. Security flaw or not, the iPhone’s firmware release schedule seems to run at 2-3 month intervals. When 1.1.1 was first released, a serious vulnerability in the device’s image processing libraries allowed a shellcode exploit to be written for it. Within a few days, the Dev Team wrote a tool (http://www.jailbreakme.com) to allow consumers to use this vulnerability to hijack their own phones and fix it themselves. Over one million users (30% of the market at the time) used the third party tool within the first few weeks. It took two more months for Apple to release the next version of their firmware to address the issue.

When you’re dealing with mobile, “always on” technology like the iPhone, zero-day exploits require zero-day fixes. And in cases where no patches are available, the consumer at least has the option to make a decision whether to stop using the product until a fix is supplied. Relying on the vendor to fix problems before disclosing them eliminates the possibility for these kinds of consumer workarounds or patches. It also robs the consumer of the ability to redirect their money to a different product. Vendor-supplied fixes, of course, also help drive sales for vendor support and maintenance packages by increasing their demand. Once again, the vendor-first / vendor-only approach appears to only benefit the vendor here, at the consumer’s expense.

Plausible Deniability

The advantage that vendors gain in keeping secrets from customers is simply having plausible deniability. When a vulnerability is actually fixed, a vendor may deny the privacy flaw ever existed, or at least severely downplay any risk. This can (and has) been used to sweep over any concern, having the side effect of also downplaying any inclination to audit for a security breach. After all, it’s bad for a vendor to have to admit to a security flaw, but entirely disasterous for their image should anyone discover an actual breach occured. As far as the vendor is concerned, ’tis best not to check.

I ran into this shortly after I discovered a flaw in Verizon’s online billing services some years ago, which allowed me to view other customers’ billing information through Verizon’s web portal. I’ll not likely forget the famous last words of the Verizon security technician, “Thanks for not telling anybody about this.” It was the next day that I talked to the Washington Post, with Verizon denying and/or downplaying each claim. I doubt the leak ever would have come to light otherwise, and most definitely would have never been audited. My screenshots were the only proof that there ever was a problem, and at that point it comes down to mere credibilty.

Plausible deniability is one of a vendor’s greatest advantages when the “vendor first” approach is used instead of full disclosure. By fixing things privately, there is no way (in some cases at least) to verify that the vulnerability ever existed, or by the time the vendor releases information about the vulnerability, it may be well too late to check for a privacy breach. When this happens, it is the word of the person reporting the vulnerability against a team of corporate engineers who will all insist it isn’t as bad as it sounds.

The full disclosure approach solves the problem of corporate accountability by ensuring that the informed public (specifically, security professionals) can verify and assess the situation. Full disclosure gives the public a window of opportunity to not only verify the vulnerability, but to see just how deep the rabbit hole goes; something the vendor is almost guaranteed to either intentionally ignore or cover up. The bad guy is already going to test and exploit these vulnerabilities long before the public even discovers them – the good guys ought to have a crack at verifying it too.

Public Outcry

Just how large that window of opportunity is depends on the vendor, and presents another reason why “vendor first” doesn’t work. Vendors can be slow about fixing things – and many have a track record of lethargy. Some software vendors lag months behind. In spite of what you may think, the goal of the vendor is not to produce a quality product; it is to sell product. And in selling product, selling support agreements come with the turf. Carefully timing security updates so that they span certain contractual intervals is one way to ensure that a product’s maintenance fees are going to get bought into. The average MTTR for some of the most widely used operating systems and other popular software is on the order of 3-6 months! So if you’re following along with the thought pattern laid out here, that means 3-6 months of unknown bad guys possibly exploiting these vulnerabilities and stealing personal information that may have otherwise been stopped at the customer or consumer level.

There is, however, one way to ensure a vendor fixes a flaw quickly, and that is public outcry. I find some otherwise slow vendors respond quite snappily when five million consumers are banging down their door and threatening to sue them in class action court. Public outcry has become the Q/A filter for many vendors whose response times have become ridiculously poor in recent years. It lets the vendor know what bugs are going to hurt their bottom line – and those are the ones that are quite likely to receive the most attention. It is certainly advantageous for the vendor to push the “vendor first” approach when it means removing the pressure to repair critical flaws. It is public pressure that has the power to change governments – certainly, it can be an effective tool at fixing security flaws.


Of course, over-fixing things is the fear many development teams have with vendors, and is an issue I’ve experienced first hand with Apple, Verizon, and a few other vendors. Before you report a security vulnerability privately to a vendor, pretend the vendor is going to read it miranda rights, because essentially your vulnerability can (and will likely) be used against you. Not to incriminate you, per se, but to rather handicap your ability to follow up.

As an example, the open source community has built up a significant arsenal. We’ve built a solid base of iPhone developers as well as a community distribution mechanism for software. Apple came along a little later (due to public outcry) and decided to build their own solid developer base and their own distribution mechanism, embarrassingly trying to copy the open source community. Apple has effectively positioned themselves as a competitor of the open development community for the iPhone. As is the case with other similar vendors, privately releasing a vulnerability to them is a technological death wish; the technique you used to find the vulnerability in the first place will likely be “fixed” so that you won’t have access to find such a vulnerability again. Make no mistake – this is not to better secure the product; this is to quiet the noise you’ve generated and ensure that they don’t have to hear from you again.

Once again, full disclosure presents a window. This window of opportunity allows others to collaborate with you by picking up where your work left off. Over-fixes are likely going to happen, but by the time they do, the public will have given the product a thorough proctological and likely uncovered many additional exploits you may have missed.

Litmus Test

Not to suggest that all vendors are evil, lazy, or financially motivated, but in a capitalist society, it is the consumer’s responsibility to hold a corporation accountable. This is not possible if the corporation is controlling the flow of information.

If you’re interviewing vendors, ask them where you can find a manifest of security flaws accompanied by dates reported, dates patches were released, and a report of all associated breaches. If this information is available publicly, you’ve stumbled across a rare breed of responsible vendor.

The bottom line is this: a company that is afraid to tell the customer about a security risk until after it’s fixed is both dangerous and irresponsible. The best litmus test when selecting a vendor is to find vendors who embrace full disclosure in such a way that vulnerabilities are reported quickly to their downstream customers, and if privacy-related, the consumer. Full disclosure is the key to privacy. If your goal is to have security flaws fixed, rather than covered up, full disclosure is the only way to guarantee that your research will be thoroughly tested and patched; what’s more, it is the only way to ensure that the vendor is held accountable in an age of privacy breaches and litigation.