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Which vendor “is least secure”?

The people over at Intego have a blog post, Which big vendor is least secure? They discuss that because Microsoft have upped their game, malware authors have started to target other products, notably those produced by Adobe and Apple.

That doesn’t really address the question though: which big vendor is least secure (or more precisely, which big vendor creates the least secure products)? It’s an interesting question, and one that’s so hard to answer, people usually get it wrong.

The usual metrics for vendor software security are:

  • Number of vulnerability reports/advisories last year
  • Speed of addressing reported vulnerabilities

Both are just proxies for the question we really want to know the answer to: “what risk does this product expose its users to?” Each has drawbacks when used as such a proxy.

The previous list of vulnerabilities seems to correlate with a company’s development practices – if they were any good at threat modelling, they wouldn’t have released software with those vulnerabilities in, right? Well, maybe. But maybe they did do some analysis, discovered the vulnerability, and decided to accept it. Perhaps the vulnerability reports were actually the result of their improved secure development lifecycle, and some new technique, tool or consultant has patched up a whole bunch of issues. Essentially all we know is what problems have been addressed and who found them, and we can tell something about the risk that users were exposed to while those vulnerabilities were present. Actually, we can’t tell too much about that, unless we can find evidence that it was exploited (or not, which is harder). We really know nothing about the remaining risk profile of the application – have 1% or 100% of vulnerabilities been addressed?

The only time we really know something about the present risk is in the face of zero-day vulnerabilities, because we know that a problem exists and has yet to be addressed. But reports of zero-days are comparatively rare, because the people who find them usually have no motivation to report them. It’s only once the zero-day gets exploited, and the exploit gets discovered and reported that we know the problem existed in the first place.

The speed of addressing vulnerabilities tells us some information about the vendor’s ability to react to security issues. Well, you might think it does, it actually tells you a lot more about the vendor’s perception of their customers’ appetite for installing updates. Look at enterprise-focussed vendors like Sophos and Microsoft, and you’ll find that most security patches are distributed on a regular schedule so that sysadmins know when to expect them and can plan their testing and deployment accordingly. Both companies have issued out-of-band updates, but only in extreme circumstances.

Compare that model with Apple’s, a company that is clearly focussed on the consumer market. Apple typically have an ad hoc (or at least opaque) update schedule, with security and non-security content alike bundled into infrequent patch releases. Security content is simultaneously released for some earlier operating systems in a separate update. Standalone security updates are occasionally seen on the Mac, rarely (if ever) on the iPhone.

I don’t really use any Adobe software so had to research their security update schedule specifically for this post. In short, it looks like they have very frequent security updates, but without any public schedule. Using Adobe Reader is an exercise in unexpected update installation.

Of course, we can see when the updates come out, but that doesn’t directly mean we know how long they take to fix problems – for that we need to know when problems were reported. Microsoft’s monthly updates don’t necessarily address bugs that were reported within the last month, they might be working on a huge backlog.

Where we can compare vendors is situations in which they all ship the same component with the same vulnerabilities, and must provide the same update. The more reactive companies (who don’t think their users mind installing updates) will release the fixes first. In the case of Apple we can compare their fixes of shared components like open source UNIX tools or Java with other vendors – Linux distributors and Oracle mainly. It’s this comparison that Apple frequently loses, by taking longer to release the same patch than other Oracle, Red Hat, Canonical and friends.

So ultimately what we’d like to know is “which vendor exposes its customers to most risk?”, for which we’d need an honest, accurate and comprehensive risk analysis from each vendor or an independent source. Of course, few customers are going to want to wade through a full risk analysis of an operating system.

{ 2 } Comments

  1. alastair | April 30, 2010 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

    It’s important to include the risks associated with installing updates when doing this analysis. In particular, an update might contain a bug that either opens a new security hole or breaks functionality your business depends on.

    Vendors with a longer release cycle might just be testing more than those who rush out lots of fixes, or might in any case benefit from greater certainty that a patch isn’t going to make things worse.

  2. Graham | May 22, 2010 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    alastair, good point. Updates can contain regressions (I remember an OS X update that broke rsync horrendously) or just not work (Microsoft have retracted at least one security hotfix after finding it didn’t fix the vulnerability). But if you plan to spend, say, the second Wednesday of the month evaluating any available vendor updates, does it matter whether the update was issued on the second Tuesday or at some unpredictable time?