Security disclosure or vulnerability management?

Which do I need for an open source project?

This article is a companion piece to one I wrote soon after the advent of Meltdown and Spectre, Meltdown and Spectre: thinking about embargoes and disclosures, and I urge you to read that first, as it provides background and context to this article which I don’t plan to reiterate in full.

In that previous article, I mentioned that many open source projects have a security disclosure process, and most of the rest of the article was basically a list of decisions and steps that you might find in such a process. There’s another term that you might hear, however, which is a Vulnerability Management Process, or “VMP”. While a security disclosure process can be defined as a type of VMP, there are subtle differences to what these two processes might look like, and what they might mean, or be seen to mean, so I think it’s worth spending a little time examining possible differences before we continue.

I just did a “Google fight”[1] for “security disclosure” vs “vulnerability management”, and the former “won” by a ratio of around 5:3. I suspect that this is largely because security disclosures tend to sound exciting and are more “sexy” for headlines than are articles about managing things – even if those things are vulnerabilities.

I’m torn between the two, because both terms highlight important aspects – or reflect different viewpoints – of the same important basic idea: if a bad thing is discovered that involves your product or project, then you need to fix it. I’m going to come at this, as usual for me, from the point of view of open source, so let me give my personal feelings about each.

Security disclosure process

First off, I like the fact that the word “security” is front and centre here. Saying security focusses the mind in ways which “vulnerability” may not, and while a vulnerability may be the thing that we’re addressing, the impact that we’re trying to mitigate is on the security associated with the project or product. The second thing that I like about this phrase is the implication that disclosure is what we are aiming for. Now, this fits well with an open source mindset, but I wonder whether the accent is somewhat different for those who come from a more proprietary background. Where I read “a process to manage telling people about a security problem”, I suspect that others may read “a process to manage the fact that someone has told people about a security problem.” I urge everyone to move to the first point of view, for two reasons:

  1. I believe that security is best done in the open – though we need to find ways to protect people while fixes are being put in place and disseminated;
  2. if we don’t encourage people to come to us – project maintainers, product managers, architects, technical leads – first, in the belief that fixes will be managed as per point 1 above, and also that credit will be given where it’s due, then those who discover vulnerabilities will have little incentive to follow the processes we put in place. If this happens, they are more likely to disclose to the wider world before us, making providing and propagating fixes in a timely fashion much more difficult.

Vulnerability management process

This phrase shares the word “process” with the previous one, and, combined with the world “management”, conveys the importance of working through the issue at hand. It also implies to me, at least, that there is other work to be done around the vulnerability rather than just letting everybody know about it (“disclosure”). This may seem like a bad thing (see above), but on the other hand, acknowledging that vulnerabilities do need managing seems to be a worthwhile thing to signal. What worries me, however, is that managing can be seen to imply “sweeping under the carpet” – in other words, making the problem go away.

Tied with this is something about the word “vulnerability” in this context which is holds both negative and positive connotations. The negative is that one would say “it’s just another vulnerability”, underplaying the security aspect of what it represents. The positive is that sometimes, vulnerabilities are not all of the same severity – some aren’t that serious, compared to others – and it’s important to recognise this, and to have a process which allows you to address all severities of problem, part of which process is to rank and probably prioritise them – often known as “triaging”, a term borrowed from the medical world.

A third option?

There’s at least one alternative. Though it scores lower than either “vulnerability management” or “security disclosure” in a Google fight (which, as I mentioned in the footnotes, isn’t exactly a scientific measure), a “vulnerability disclosure” process is another option. Although it doesn’t capture the “security” aspect, it does at least imply disclosure, which I like.

Which do I need?

My main focus for this article – and my passion and background – is open source, so the next question is: “which do I need for an open source project?” The answer, to some degree, is “either” – or “any of them”, if you include the third option. Arguably, as noted above, a “security disclosure process” is a type of vulnerability management process anyway, but I think that in the open source world particularly, the implication of working towards disclosure – towards openness – is important. The open source community is very sensitive to words, and any suggestion of cover-up is unlikely to be welcomed, even if such an implication was entirely unintentional.

One point that I think it’s worth making is that I believe that pretty much any component or library that you are working on may have security implications down the road[2]. This means that there should be some process in place to deal with vulnerabilities or security issues. To be clear: many of these will be discovered by contributors to the project themselves, rather than external researchers or bug-hunters, but that doesn’t mean that such vulnerabilities are a) less important than externally found ones; OR b) less in need of a process for dealing with them.

A good place to look at what questions to start asking is my previous article, but I strongly recommend that every open source project should have some sort of process in place to deal with vulnerabilities or other issues which may have a security impact. I’ve also written a follow-up article with some options about how to deal with different types of disclosure, vulnerability and process, which you can find here: Open source projects, embargoes and NDAs.


1 – try it: Googlefight.com – it’s a fun (if unscientific) method to gauge the relative popularity of two words or terms on the web.

2 – who would ever have thought that font rendering software could lead to critical security issue?

Author: Mike Bursell

Long-time Open Source and Linux bod, distributed systems security, etc.. Now employed by Red Hat. マイク・バーゼル: オープンソースとLinuxに長く従事。他にも分散セキュリティシステムなども手がける。現在Red Hatのチーフセキュリティアーキテクト

3 thoughts on “Security disclosure or vulnerability management?”

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