Internet Consortium to launch fee-based security service

The Internet Software Consortium (ISC), which develops the server software most commonly used to direct traffic on the Web, is moving to create a fee-based information-sharing club that officials at the organization said is meant to give software vendors and other companies early warnings about security holes affecting its products.

The disclosure of the plans for the information exchange comes just one week after security analysts at the CERT Coordination Center at Carnegie Mellon University and Network Associates Inc.’s PGP Security subsidiary issued simultaneous warnings about significant security vulnerabilities in multiple versions of ISC’s widely used Berkeley Internet Name Domain (BIND) server.

Paul Vixie, chairman of the Redwood City, Calif.-based ISC, said in an interview Monday that the new fee-based exchange is aimed at opening up more direct communication channels with software vendors, Internet service providers and other companies when holes are found in BIND and the other software that his organization develops.

“ISC found that speaking to vendors through the CERT advisory process was somewhat awkward and made for extra work on both sides,” Vixie said. “The next time we learn, through CERT or otherwise, that there is an attackable bug in code that we’ve published, we hope to have a direct and very private communications forum with the people who run the Internet infrastructure or who need lead time to prepare patches for their customers.”

However, ISC’s plans to set up an exclusive information-sharing service have sparked a heated debate among some security analysts and technology users, many of whom posted their concerns last week on various online discussion boards. Some called ISC’s plan the first step down a “slippery slope” that could lead to a time when the only people who will get the information needed to protect their networks will be those who are willing to pay a fee.

“What kind of an edge do they really think they’ll be providing to IT staffs and security administrators?” asked Keith Morgan, a network security specialist at Terradon Communications Group LLC in Nitro, W. Va., in an interview Monday. “And why would anyone pay for it? I think this is a pretty poor precedent.”

Morgan added that he sees nothing that distinguishes the ISC’s planned exchange from the numerous other free security alert forums that are already in place. “It’s extremely rare that the developers of any given piece of software find their own security flaws,” he said. “Almost 100 per cent of the time, it’s a third party that discovers and publishes security vulnerabilities . . . I wouldn’t even consider subscribing.”

A spokesman at Pittsburgh-based CERT declined to comment on the ISC’s plan. However, John Tritak, director of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office, said he thinks that the consortium’s information-sharing effort is a step in the right direction.

“The government’s policy so far has been that we want industry to better organize itself to better share information,” Tritak said. “The question is whether or not information sharing overall has been enhanced as a result of this decision. I can’t help but think this is to the benefit of everybody.”

Eventually, Tritak added, software developers and security vendors will probably develop a more streamlined procedure for reporting and publicizing vulnerabilities. But for now, “it’s more important than anything else for [the technology] industry to take ownership of this issue,” he said. “We need to encourage that.”

Amit Yoran, CEO at Riptech Inc., a network security-monitoring firm in Alexandria, Va., said he doesn’t see big problems with the formation of another information-sharing mechanism. But, he added, there are still many questions about how ISC plans to share and disseminate information about vulnerabilities.

“I would be surprised and let down if [ISC] does not participate in some of the existing forums,” said Yoran, the former director of the Vulnerability Assessment and Assistance Program for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Computer Emergency Response Team. “It is imperative that any critical infrastructure information … gets to the people who need to know it. I’m not convinced that doing it in a fee-for-service approach is the best way to do that.”

Defending the ISC’s plans, Vixie said the organization would still use the CERT Coordination Center to announce security holes in its products on a widespread basis. “Nothing ISC has historically done will stop,” even with the advent of the fee-based service, he said.