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“Free from all vulnerabilities”, and other fables my mother told me

Tom Alrich's picture
Supply chain Cyber Risk management - emphasis on SBOMs and VEX documents, Tom Alrich LLC

I provide consulting services in supply chain cybersecurity risk management and am now primarily focused on software bills of materials (SBOMs) and VEX (Vulnerability Exploitability eXchange). I...

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  • Aug 23, 2022
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Walter Haydock continues to write great articles about vulnerability management. His latest is a case in point. The post is ostensibly about the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2023 (which passed the House a month or two ago), but he provides good advice for any organization that’s concerned about software vulnerabilities, which should be just about every organization on the planet.

The provision of the Act that he focuses on specifies contract language for DHS, including…get ready for it… that the vendor must provide “a planned bill of materials when submitting a bid proposal” and “A certification that each item listed on the submitted bill of materials is free from all known vulnerabilities or defects affecting the security of the end product or service…” 

Of course! After all, what could be simpler? All the supplier has to do is certify that not a single third party component in their product – and none of the “first party” code written by the supplier itself – contains any vulnerability at all (and if the product includes thousands of components – still no problem!). Moreover, this applies to all vulnerabilities, regardless of whether the CVSS score is 0 or 10 or the EPSS (exploitability) score is 0 or 1. It will be easy as pie for any supplier to make this certification; they just have to write “I so certify” (or words to that effect) on a piece of paper or digital document and send it in. But making it truthfully? Ahh, that will be harder...

Furthermore, Walter points out there’s no provision for monitoring software for new vulnerabilities after it’s installed. He says “…this provision appears to over-index on the (perceived) security of a piece of software at a single point in time, without any concerns about what happens after the software goes into operation.” What? Do you mean to tell me that the number of possible software vulnerabilities wasn’t fixed when Alan Turing first described (unintentionally) the idea of programmable computers in his great 1936 paper, “On computable numbers…” – despite the fact that the “computer” he described required an infinite paper tape and would never finish a calculation? Walter, why didn’t you tell the House committee that drafted the bill that new software vulnerabilities are identified every day, if not every hour?

Of course, this isn’t a mere omission. Whoever drafted this provision of the Act obviously didn’t understand that, far from having a fixed security posture from birth, software develops vulnerabilities all the time, as researchers (and attackers, who are also performing “research”) discover snippets of code that used to be considered benign, but now…aren’t. In 2021, 20,000 new CVEs were identified. That works out to two per hour.

After all, that’s what vulnerability management is about: learning about newly identified vulnerabilities that apply to the software your organization utilizes and taking steps to patch or otherwise mitigate the small minority of vulnerabilities that you determine pose a risk to your organization, while ignoring the overwhelming majority that don’t.

Walter continues, “There appears (in the required contract language) to be no ability on the part of the vendor to accept risk stemming from software vulnerabilities, even when providing a justification to the government. The vendor can only ‘mitigate, repair, or resolve’ such issues.” Frankly, I can see some misguided corporate lawyer putting together contractual requirements like these. But someone working for Congress should presumably have access to the best cybersecurity advice available. Didn’t they even think to ask someone knowledgeable whether what they were writing made sense? Guess not.

However, I disagree with Walter in the last part of his post. He says:

At a minimum, this legislation will make it basically mandatory to use machine-readable Vulnerability Exploitability eXchange (VEX) reports about issues identified in software products used by the government. Any non-automated process would break down easily and likely run afoul of the law’s requirements. Without the widespread use of such standards and tools, software bills of materials (SBOMs) are not likely to see significant adoption, due to the fact that vendors will be flooded with inquiries about false positive vulnerabilities in their products. Thus, this bill may help to motivate the introduction of new techniques for communicating about the exploitability of vulnerabilities in software while increasing transparency for the entire ecosystem.

I approve of his obvious wish to see SBOMs adopted in significant numbers, as well as his observation that this will never happen unless there are also VEX documents available to warn users about the huge percentage of non-exploitable component vulnerabilities (my analogy is that, if SBOMs are the wheels of software supply chain cybersecurity, VEXes are the lubricant. The SBOM wheels will stop turning very quickly if not lubricated with VEXes). And I agree with him that it would be nice if this bill (it won’t be a law until the Senate approves it, of course) led to wide use of VEXes, which might then make SBOMs widely used as well.

However, I really don’t think this small provision of the NDAA will ever get implemented, even if it passes the Senate in its current form (and I hope it gets removed by the Senate. Saying nothing at all about the subject of software vulnerabilities would be much better than requiring compliance with nonsensical rules). But even if it does pass, I predict it won’t be implemented in practice, even if it is nominally a law.

Why do I say this? It’s because I’ve seen previously how a regulation[i] can literally not make sense but still be implemented – and still be “complied with”. Would you like to know how I think this happened? ...I didn’t think so, but I’ll tell you anyway. It happened because the regulators and the entities regulated developed a tacit understanding that the standards were basically unambiguous, and therefore compliance could be objectively verified. This is a variation of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that the Clinton administration came up with to address another problem having to do with the military.[ii]

Works like a charm. You ought to try it.

Any opinions expressed in this blog post are strictly mine and are not necessarily shared by any of the clients of Tom Alrich LLC. If you would like to comment on what you have read here, I would love to hear from you. Please email me at tom@tomalrich.com.


[i] NERC CIP version 5. If you search on that phrase in my blog, I’m sure you’ll find it mentioned in at least 400 of the (as of now) 938 posts I’ve published.

[ii] The Soviet Union was the showplace for this sort of thing, since almost no law or regulation could be complied with as written. There was a saying among the workers, “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.”

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