As you might suspect, the bad guys have much better exploit notification than the good guys. While there is no central repository of vulnerability information that is only released to the good guys, Microsoft does an excellent job with early notification of its vulnerability information via its MAPP (Microsoft Active Protections Program). Should there be something similar setup for all security bugs on an industry wide basis?

On the surface it sounds like a great idea. Information about critical bugs like HeartBleed could be shared with trusted and vetted members early before the information was made publicly available and the bad guys could take advantage of it. This gives those trusted members time to fix the problem before the bad guys could develop new attacks and take advantage of the flaws.

This is how MAPP works. Microsoft has very strict guidelines on who can and cannot be included in the program and if you are found to be leaking information before the specified release date you are ejected from the program. Microsoft historically only granted a few days notice to its trusted MAPP partners of the upcoming Patch Tuesday bugs but have recently expanded this length of time to give vendors more time to develop protections for their products before the bad guys can reverse engineer the patches and develop exploits for those bugs.

This all works for Microsoft because they are in control of their information, the number of members in MAPP is kept small and each much conform to strict guidelines to protect the information Microsoft provides. But on an industry-wide scale this model falls apart. A prime example of the chaos that can surround a critical bug disclosure is the mess surrounding the disclosure of the HeartBleed bug. If you look at the timeline composed by the Sidney Morning Herald it is evident that attempting to keep the disclosure process simple and organized on an industry wide level is anything but simple. The process is fraught with non-disclosure agreements, employee leaks and covert secrecy, definitely not a process that should be trusted with critical software vulnerabilities.

The first issue of an industry wide MAPP style program would be who would run it? Is this a task for the US government? What about bugs found outside the United States? How would you keep the NSA or other agencies from attempting to horde a critical flaw and add it to their weapons stockpile? While an independent international third party could run such a program how would it be funded? You could charge a fee to trusted members but then you introduce the possibility of someone buying their way in even though they shouldn’t be trusted. Not to mention the ethical debate that would arise from ‘selling’ vulnerability information.

Then there is the matter of deciding who can be trusted with handling such information early. As with any secret the more people you tell the harder it is to keep secret and as a the heartbleed timeline shows some people may leak information to their friends and employers or bad guys before a public announcement. Membership should be limited to prevent the circle from getting to large but who decides who is in and who isn’t?

Of course all this completely ignores the actions of the rogue researcher who is free to do whatever they want with their research. There is nothing stopping them from publishing such information publicly, telling a small group of people, selling it to the highest bidder or hoarding it for their own uses and telling no one.

An industry wide MAPP program sounds good at first but due to governance issues, international politics, and of course money, it would be difficult to keep together, keep the information out of the hands of the bad guys, and probably just create way to much drama and infighting inside the industry. Even if you were able to solve all those problems there will still be the one person who decides they don’t want to play by the rules and will do what they want.