Google: Software vendors should respond to actively attacked vulnerabilities within a week

Vendors should issue fixes or at least mitigation advice for zero-day flaws within a seven-day time frame, Google security engineers say

Google wants vendors to fix or offer mitigation advice for previously unknown and actively exploited software vulnerabilities within seven days of their discovery.

"After 7 days have elapsed without a patch or advisory, we will support researchers making details available so that users can take steps to protect themselves," Google security engineers Chris Evans and Drew Hintz said Wednesday in a blog post.

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In 2010, Google researchers proposed a public disclosure deadline of 60 days for critical vulnerabilities and said that vendors should release a patch or mitigation information for them within that time frame.

"Based on our experience, however, we believe that more urgent action -- within 7 days -- is appropriate for critical vulnerabilities under active exploitation," the Google security engineers said. "The reason for this special designation is that each day an actively exploited vulnerability remains undisclosed to the public and unpatched, more computers will be compromised."

Over the years, Google security researchers have found dozens of cases where attackers were actively targeting publicly unknown, or "zero-day," vulnerabilities in software from third-party vendors, Evans and Hintz said. "We always report these cases to the affected vendor immediately, and we work closely with them to drive the issue to resolution," they said.

Many zero-day vulnerabilities are used against specific groups of individuals in targeted attacks that are often more serious than broader ones, the Google security engineers said. For example, political activists from certain parts of the world are frequently targeted and the compromise of their computers can have real implications for their personal safety, they said.

"Seven days is an aggressive timeline and may be too short for some vendors to update their products, but it should be enough time to publish advice about possible mitigations, such as temporarily disabling a service, restricting access, or contacting the vendor for more information," Evans and Hintz said.

Google expects to be held to the same standard and hopes that this new recommended time frame for zero-day vulnerability response will improve the coordination of vulnerability management and the overall state of security on the Web.

Carsten Eiram, the chief research officer at security firm Risk Based Security, agrees that making information about zero-day vulnerabilities known to users is important. "Each day an 0-day [vulnerability] is left undisclosed, systems are at a greater risk," he said Thursday via email. "Google providing other vendors with 7 days to respond by either publishing an announcement or a fix is very reasonable; they should not provide more."

Google has a fairly large security research team whose members are often credited by third-party vendors, including large ones like Adobe and Microsoft, with discovering vulnerabilities in their products.

However, while Google's new disclosure recommendation will most likely be followed by the company's own security researchers, it remains to be seen if it will also be adopted by third-party researchers or if it will influence vendors.

"Sadly, things don't change from one day to another," Kasper Lindgaard, the head of research at vulnerability management firm Secunia, said Thursday via email. "We do hope that all vendors will be influenced by this, that they will continue to improve their patching response times and accept their responsibility to ensure that 0-day vulnerabilities are patched as soon as possible."

Lindgaard described Google's seven-day time frame for coming up with a fix or workaround for a previously unknown vulnerability that is being actively exploited by attackers as being "sensible."

"To respond within 7 days with a properly tested patch without regressions is not always going to be possible, but in most cases it should be possible to come up with workarounds, if a patch is not available," he said. "So yes, I would expect that, in most instances of highly critical 0-day vulnerabilities, a vendor should be able to produce at least a workaround within 7 days."

Large software vendors like Microsoft, Adobe and Oracle, whose products are a frequent target of zero-day attacks, have experience in dealing with such incidents and have processes in place that allow them to respond in a timely manner most of the time. However, smaller vendors might be less prepared to deal with zero-day vulnerabilities and alert their customers.

"Our policy has always been to fix exploits in the wild as soon as possible," said Heather Edell, Adobe's senior manager of corporate communications, via email. "This is usually within seven days, unless there are extenuating circumstances."

Oracle did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent Thursday regarding Google's new recommended timeline for zero-day vulnerability disclosures.

On its part, Microsoft, which also finds vulnerabilities in third-party products, follows a disclosure process that it calls CVD (Coordinated Vulnerability Disclosure). This process doesn't use disclosure deadlines, as Microsoft prefers to coordinate with the affected vendors until fixes are released.

However, in cases of unpatched vulnerabilities in third-party products that are being actively exploited or that become publicly known, Microsoft researchers work with the affected vendor to release an advisory with potential mitigations and workarounds before a fix is ready.

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