In worm war, feds fight the clock

FedCIRC Patch Authentication and Dissemination Capability

Worms are appearing more frequently than ever, but patches are not keeping pace, federal officials warned.

Agencies are using many solutions to patch their systems and networks against security vulnerabilities, they said, but it's tough to keep up because the time between vulnerability discovery and exploitation keeps getting shorter.

In the past two years, the cycle has shrunk from months to weeks, said Robert Dacey, director of information security at the General Accounting Office. Worse yet, the number of security vulnerabilities discovered in software is increasing every month, he said, testifying Sept. 10 before the House Government Reform Committee's Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census Subcommittee.

Vendors usually make patches quickly available once someone has discovered a vulnerability, but it takes time for agencies to test and apply those patches on their thousands of systems. "Given these increasing risks, effective patch management systems have become critical," Dacey said.

Most agencies, for example, applied the patch for the vulnerability in several of Microsoft Corp.'s operating systems that the Blaster worm and its variant attacked last month, just three weeks after the patch was released. But the worm affected approximately 1,000 systems, slowing down federal e-mail systems and occasionally taking down networks, said Norm Lorentz, chief technology officer at the Office of Management and Budget. This was one of the quickest exploitations of a known vulnerability, experts said.

At this point, 47 agencies have signed up to use the Federal Computer Incident Response Center's Patch Authentication and Dissemination Capability, said Larry Hale, director of FedCIRC, which is now part of the Homeland Security Department's National Cyber Security Division.

Many of those agencies are still testing the service, which pushes out notices of security patches based on each agency's submitted infrastructure profile, he said.

"By automating the process, agencies will no longer have the burden of having to manually apply patches, which will enable them more time to focus on building a more robust configuration management program," he said.

Other agencies use other solutions, and some use both the FedCIRC service and a commercial solution, Lorentz said.

"There are different approaches; we do not dictate which method they use," he said. However, "there can be variation in the tools, but there cannot be variation in the expected outcome," which is that agencies apply patches before an attack.

Because the majority of vulnerabilities continue to exist because of basic flaws in commercial software, industry is also developing a process to discover vulnerabilities and notify vendors. The goal is to develop patches before someone with malicious intent finds the hole and publishes the details for anyone to exploit.

In July, the Organization for Internet Safety, a group of security researchers, security companies and other software vendors, published guidelines for reporting software flaws and for vendors to respond to the reports.

Cooperation between vendors and users has been growing during the past few years, and FedCIRC, and now the cybersecurity division, are now often involved in remediation and response discussions in the early stages of a vulnerability's cycle.

Once a patch is available, agencies are required by OMB and the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002 to report through FedCIRC on their patch-application status, but there is no automatic reporting process, Lorentz pointed out to the subcommittee.

There is also no way for FedCIRC officials to automatically determine anything beyond how many times a patch has been downloaded through the dissemination capability, and that is not a good metric because a single patch can be used for thousands of systems, Hale said.

"You can't tell how many computers have been inoculated by a single download, but it's the best thing we've got," he said.

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