SSL Protocol Vulnerability – and Confidentiality

There was an SSL vulnerability revealed last week – a design flaw in the protocol itself. There are two very notable things in this news: the vulnerability being in the protocol itself (like DNS and SNMP before it), and the way news of the vulnerability was broken.

The flaw in the protocol was discovered in August by researchers at PhoneFactor, and the vulnerability was released confidentially to those who could fix its problems and produce fixes for the vulnerability.

This flaw was then discovered by an independent researcher, who likewise released the vulnerability confidentially to an IETF security mailing list.

The problem was that a reader of that mailing list did an irresponsible thing and let the news of the SSL protocol vulnerability loose by sending a tweet message about it on Twitter to all of their friends – which meant that the news was set to be released to everyone. Mark Twain said: “Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.”. This problem of vulnerabilities and of when and how to release the news is not new; nor is the problem of the unknowing releasing confidential details.

The problem with security vulnerabilities and confidentiality is legend: it has become one of those arguments that never quits: do you release the details of a vulnerability as soon as they are known or do you wait for the fix to be released after confidentially notifying affected vendors? The uneasy answer most often reached is that a combination of both is necessary.

The problem of tweet messages releasing confidential information has happened before; one most notable incident was when Congressman Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) let slip news in Twitter about his trip to Baghdad. This news was then picked up by Wired, the New York Times, CNet, and – of course – the Congressional Quarterly.

In the security arena, confidentiality is much more critical – as is evidenced by the fact that Twitter itself was attacked with this vulnerability just in the last few days.

When you “speak” on the Internet, the world will hear: so be careful what you say.

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