Credit for Researchers

Computer security researchers are much like scientific researchers in several ways. We build on the research of those who come before us, we sometimes rediscover the same things independently, and other times we forget where we learned things and sometimes claim them as our own. We also occasionally take an engineer’s approach and implement research discovered by others and not credit them as it’s the implementation into a tool that matters to us.

The latest Microsoft patch MS08-68 is a great example. It is a problem with NTLM authentication where the attacker can force a client to authenticate to him and the credentials, while not exposed in cleartext, can be relayed to another server or brute forced to obtain the cleartext. This is a very classic crypto protocol vulnerability. It’s not the crypto algorithms that are the problem, but the protocol implementation.

Microsoft recently fixed the problem, perhaps due to the availability of exploit code, the availability of an easy to use Metasploit implementation, or perhaps Microsoft’s changed tolerance for vulnerabilities. We can sum it up as a change in the threat space that made it worth fixing. But make no mistake, this is a very old problem.

News reports have been citing Sir Dystic’s SMBrelay tool, which was published in March, 2001, as the first knowledge of this vulnerability. Eric Shultze who worked at MSRC in 2001 just yesterday is quoted as saying, “I have been holding my breath since 2001 for this patch.” Obviously it is a long time coming. But this wasn’t the first publication of the problem. In 2000, one of my collegues on the research team at @stake, Christien Rioux (aka Dildog) published the telnet NTLM authentication vulnerability.

Rioux’s advisory has a great description of the credential relay and cracking weaknesses. I have talked to him and he says he discovered these problems independently, but he didn’t find them first. Dominique Brezinski published exactly these NTLM vulnerabilities in the SMB protocol in 1996 in a paper titled, “A Weakness in CIFS Authentication”. The earliest reference I can find on the paper on the net is here where it is included in another paper published in 1997. Such is the ad-hoc world of independent security research of 12 years ago which still continues today.

It seems ridiculous that a field like security research, which is so important to the running of modern society is so ad-hoc. Shouldn’t we know who discovered a vulnerability? Shouldn’t all researchers and engineers know about it? More importantly if someone implements a tool that takes advantage of a vulnerability shouldn’t they credit the discoverer? Don’t get me wrong. Implementation takes a lot of work and sometimes makes all the difference in makeing people aware of a security problem. After all when I was at the L0pht our slogan was, “Making the theoretical, practical”. I still think researchers should get credit when credit is due.

The security community has gotten better at documentating our research but I still see instances of independent discovery, misplaced credit, and tools giving no credit to researchers. I hate to say it but getting a bit more academic is in order. Credit is the currency of a researcher and placing it well will reward the right people and we will all benefit.

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Friday Summary | | November 14, 2008 4:43 pm

[...] Microsoft patches a 7 year old SMB flaw, which leads Chris Wysopal to talk about researcher credit. [...]

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