Digital Utility Group
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What would you like to do with/to the NVD?
- Mar 17, 2023 11:17 am GMT
Almost anybody who has been involved with software vulnerabilities in any way (even hackers!) has a love/hate relationship with the National Vulnerability Database (NVD). On the plus side, it’s by far the largest and best-supported vulnerability database in the world. But on the minus side, there are many problems that make it hard to use the NVD, and in many cases make it impossible to find vulnerability information which almost certainly is in the database somewhere or other.
A little less than a year ago, I convened an informal group of “SBOM industry” leaders to discuss why it is that SBOMs are grossly underperforming, at least when it comes to distribution to and use by organizations whose primary business isn’t software development.[i] The goal of the group was not just to discuss those issues, but to figure out how they can be addressed, and do what we can to set them on the road to being resolved. We call ourselves the SBOM Forum, and we meet weekly on Zoom.
We decided that, while there are a lot of issues that are inhibiting SBOM distribution and use, we would focus on the show-stopper issues; I personally think there are no more than three or four of these. We didn’t have a formal discussion of which issue we would address first, but within two meetings we had found it: the naming problem.
However, even we weren’t stupid enough to try to take on the entire naming problem, which has many aspects and is found to some degree in every software or vulnerability database in the world. We focused right away on the Big Daddy of vulnerability databases, which was the one we all had experience with. The NVD uses “CPE names” to identify products, and those are the source of a lot of problems; we described those problems in pages 4-6 of the proposal we published on the OWASP site last September. Our proposal described how to fix (or at least greatly remediate) the problems with CPE, although this required involvement of a few other federal government and private sector organizations.
That proposal was meant to address the bulk of the naming problems in the NVD, and we’re hoping it can be completely implemented in 2-3 years (which of course is close to light speed when you’re dealing with the federal government). The appropriate agencies in the federal government started considering our proposal, and we were fairly sure it was on the road to implementation in our time frame.
After publishing our proposal, we had discussions on other topics and were settling in on VEX as our next topic. In my opinion, VEX and the naming problem are the two biggest show-stopper problems preventing SBOMs from being distributed and used by non-developers.
However, recently we became aware of a reason why implementation of our proposal might be delayed significantly longer than three years. We had a meeting to discuss this problem. While we received some assurances then that our immediate fears might be overblown, we ended up having a more wide-ranging discussion of the NVD, at which other issues came up. At the end of that hour-long meeting, we decided we wanted to focus on the NVD itself next, and not limit ourselves to discussing just the naming problem within the NVD.
We have representatives of some very big software and intelligent device suppliers in the SBOM Forum (as well as a number of smaller tool vendors and a few consulting firms. We only have a few end user organizations and we’d like to have more), who were surprised to hear what was said about some NVD problems that have nothing to do with naming. They wanted to hear about all the problems the other members of our group had run into.
Even more importantly, we started to have a discussion about what the NVD could be if it were allowed to move out of the narrow box it finds itself in now. For example, given that people all over the world use the NVD, yet the entire physical infrastructure is housed in the US, what might happen if the NVD could place infrastructure (perhaps through content delivery networks) on other continents – while at the same time getting support from private and public sector organizations on those other continents?
Note that I don’t for a minute blame any individuals, or even government agencies, for the NVD’s problems. Any organization that’s grown very rapidly, yet has to fulfill the obligations of being a government-controlled entity, will probably find itself in a similar box sooner or later. In fact, there’s a great example of a similar organization that was incubated in the NTIA, the same federal agency that “incubated” the Software Component Transparency Initiative, also known as “Allan’s Army”. That organization found itself in an overly box much quicker than the NVD has, and now it’s a very effective private sector organization, that gets some help from governments.
Has anyone heard of DNS? Let me put that another way: Is there anyone who uses DNS fewer than perhaps 5,000 times a day (almost always without even thinking about it, of course)? Our lives would be very different if, instead of being able to find any web site we want through a single DNS query, we had to first obtain from the operators of the site (perhaps by calling them – do you remember phone calls?) their 31-hex character IPv6 address, then enter it by hand in our browser. And woe betide you if you got one of those characters wrong; you’d have to re-enter it until you did it perfectly.
Without going into a lot of detail, the NTIA saved you from that fate by picking up an idea developed by an academic named Paul Mockapetris and turning it into a real service. In fact, NTIA itself was the first domain name registrar. But, as you can imagine, business grew very rapidly, and since the NTIA (and the federal government in general) doesn’t want to go into business doing something the private sector could probably do better and certainly less expensively, they looked for a private sector organization to take over this role.
The NTIA first made a false start when they chose a network consulting firm to handle domain registrations. After a couple years of performing well, they one day decided it would be a great idea to email organizations that requested domain names to see if they’d like some of their other services; that email set off a firestorm, and the NTIA looked for a different organization to take over domain registrations. Finally, they turned the business over to the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which remains in charge of assigning domain names to this day.[ii]
Our group is now in the process of enumerating both problems with the NVD as it exists today and opportunities it could have in the future, whether or not it remains a part of the US government and whether or not it retains the NVD name. We have some ideas already, but we’re looking for others. If you have anything you would like to contribute to this discussion, either with a comment or by suggesting a text edit or addition, please go here. You can contribute either using your email address or anonymously. We would prefer the former, but we want most to hear what you have to say, no matter how you say it.
Once we have our list of problems and opportunities together, we’ll make that publicly available. We’ll also start discussing how those problems and opportunities can be addressed, both in the short term and the long term. You’ll be welcome to participate in that as well.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
[i] The good news is that SBOMs have had tremendous success in being adopted by the software developer community, in no small part due to the efforts of Dr. Allan Friedman and the NTIA. Developers have come to realize that they need to take much more responsibility for assuring the security of the components they include in their products, and it’s literally impossible to do that without producing SBOMs at every point in the development process.
However, the bad news is that developers are almost never distributing SBOMs to their customers (at least not regularly. A new SBOM should be distributed with every major or minor version, since the previous one becomes almost completely invalid at that point), meaning their customers aren’t able to make use of them for their own software risk management purposes. However, the suppliers generally can’t be blamed for this situation; the fact is that the users aren’t asking for them.
[ii] Given what a success story this is, wouldn’t you think the NTIA might brag a little about it on their web site? I would too, but I can’t find it anywhere.
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