New White House Announcement on the Vulnerability Equities Process

The White House has released a new version of the Vulnerabilities Equities Process (VEP). This is the inter-agency process by which the US government decides whether to inform the software vendor of a vulnerability it finds, or keep it secret and use it to eavesdrop on or attack other systems. You can read the new policy or the fact sheet, but the best place to start is Cybersecurity Coordinator Rob Joyce’s blog post.

In considering a way forward, there are some key tenets on which we can build a better process.

Improved transparency is critical. The American people should have confidence in the integrity of the process that underpins decision making about discovered vulnerabilities. Since I took my post as Cybersecurity Coordinator, improving the VEP and ensuring its transparency have been key priorities, and we have spent the last few months reviewing our existing policy in order to improve the process and make key details about the VEP available to the public. Through these efforts, we have validated much of the existing process and ensured a rigorous standard that considers many potential equities.

The interests of all stakeholders must be fairly represented. At a high level we consider four major groups of equities: defensive equities; intelligence / law enforcement / operational equities; commercial equities; and international partnership equities. Additionally, ordinary people want to know the systems they use are resilient, safe, and sound. These core considerations, which have been incorporated into the VEP Charter, help to standardize the process by which decision makers weigh the benefit to national security and the national interest when deciding whether to disclose or restrict knowledge of a vulnerability.

Accountability of the process and those who operate it is important to establish confidence in those served by it. Our public release of the unclassified portions Charter will shed light on aspects of the VEP that were previously shielded from public review, including who participates in the VEP’s governing body, known as the Equities Review Board. We make it clear that departments and agencies with protective missions participate in VEP discussions, as well as other departments and agencies that have broader equities, like the Department of State and the Department of Commerce. We also clarify what categories of vulnerabilities are submitted to the process and ensure that any decision not to disclose a vulnerability will be reevaluated regularly. There are still important reasons to keep many of the specific vulnerabilities evaluated in the process classified, but we will release an annual report that provides metrics about the process to further inform the public about the VEP and its outcomes.

Our system of government depends on informed and vigorous dialogue to discover and make available the best ideas that our diverse society can generate. This publication of the VEP Charter will likely spark discussion and debate. This discourse is important. I also predict that articles will make breathless claims of “massive stockpiles” of exploits while describing the issue. That simply isn’t true. The annual reports and transparency of this effort will reinforce that fact.

Mozilla is pleased with the new charter. I am less so; it looks to me like the same old policy with some new transparency measures — which I’m not sure I trust. The devil is in the details, and we don’t know the details — and it has giant loopholes that pretty much anything can fall through:

The United States Government’s decision to disclose or restrict vulnerability information could be subject to restrictions by partner agreements and sensitive operations. Vulnerabilities that fall within these categories will be cataloged by the originating Department/Agency internally and reported directly to the Chair of the ERB. The details of these categories are outlined in Annex C, which is classified. Quantities of excepted vulnerabilities from each department and agency will be provided in ERB meetings to all members.

This is me from last June:

There’s a lot we don’t know about the VEP. The Washington Post says that the NSA used EternalBlue “for more than five years,” which implies that it was discovered after the 2010 process was put in place. It’s not clear if all vulnerabilities are given such consideration, or if bugs are periodically reviewed to determine if they should be disclosed. That said, any VEP that allows something as dangerous as EternalBlue — or the Cisco vulnerabilities that the Shadow Brokers leaked last August — to remain unpatched for years isn’t serving national security very well. As a former NSA employee said, the quality of intelligence that could be gathered was “unreal.” But so was the potential damage. The NSA must avoid hoarding vulnerabilities.

I stand by that, and am not sure the new policy changes anything.

More commentary.

Here’s more about the Windows vulnerabilities hoarded by the NSA and released by the Shadow Brokers.

EDITED TO ADD (11/18): More news.

EDITED TO ADD (11/22): Adam Shostack points out that the process does not cover design flaws or trade-offs, and that those need to be covered:

…we need the VEP to expand to cover those issues. I’m not going to claim that will be easy, that the current approach will translate, or that they should have waited to handle those before publishing. One obvious place it gets harder is the sources and methods tradeoff. But we need the internet to be a resilient and trustworthy infrastructure.

This is a Security Bloggers Network syndicated blog post authored by Bruce Schneier. Read the original post at: Schneier on Security