Bugs don’t come from the Zero-Day Faerie

Datetime:2016-08-23 03:22:19          Topic:          Share

This WIRED " article " (aka. thinly veiled yellow journalism) demonstrates the essential thing wrong with the 0day debate. Those arguing for NSA disclosure of 0days believe the Zero-Day Faerie brings them, that sometimes when the NSA wakes up in the morning, it finds a new 0day under its pillow.

The article starts with the sentences:

WHEN THE NSA discovers a new method of hacking into a piece of software or hardware, it faces a dilemma. Report the security flaw it exploits to the product’s manufacturer so it gets fixed, or keep that vulnerability secret—what’s known in the security industry as a “zero day”—and use it to hack its targets, gathering valuable intelligence.

But the NSA doesn't accidentally "discover" 0days -- it hunts for them, for the purpose of hacking. The NSA first decides it needs a Cisco 0day to hack terrorists, then spends hundreds of thousands of dollars either researching or buying the 0day. The WIRED article imagines that at this point, late in the decision cycle, that suddenly this dilemma emerges. It doesn't.

The "dilemma" starts earlier in the decision chain. Is it worth it for the government to spend $100,000 to find and disclose a Cisco 0day? Or is it worth $100,000 for the government to find a Cisco 0day and use it to hack terrorists.

The answers are obviously "no" and "yes". There is little value of the national interest in spending $100,000 to find a Cisco 0day. There are so many more undiscovered vulnerabilities that this will make little dent in the total number of bugs. Sure, in the long run, "vuln disclosure" makes computers more secure, but a large government investment in vuln disclosure (and bug bounties) will only be a small increase on the total vuln disclosure that happens without government involvement.

Conversely, if it allows the NSA to hack into a terrorist network, a $100,000 is cheap, and an obvious benefit.

My point is this. There are legitimate policy questions about government hacking and use of 0days. At the bare minimum, there should be more transparency. But the premises of activists like Andy Greenburg are insane. NSA 0days aren't accidentally "discovered", they don't come a magic Zero-Day Faerie. The NSA instead hunts for them, after they've come up with a clearly articulated need that exceeds mere disclosure.

Credit: @dinodaizovi, among others, has recently tweeted that "discover" is a flawed term that derails the 0day debate, as those like Greenberg assume it means as he describes it in his opening paragraph, that the NSA comes across them accidentally. Dino suggested the word "hunt" instead.