A Patch in Time?

Further to my earlier post about what I felt was Symantec’s somewhat tardy and insubstantial public response to the discovery of a serious vulnerability in its own Antivirus software, I don’t feel much more at ease after an email exchange with their PR folk. First off, Symantec has, by midday in the Asian day, come up with a fix which can be downloaded here.  “Symantec product and security teams,” the media statement says, “have worked around the clock since being notified of this issue to ensure its customers have the best protection available.”

That’s good. And quick. But not, I fear, good enough in PR terms. Why has Symantec worked around the clock to find a solution but not made the same effort to let interested people know of the problem in the first place? There’s been no press release on the web site, for example, only a media statement emailed to those journalists who enquire. When I asked Symantec’s PR about this. and requesting a comment to my original post, all I got was a copy of the media statement and a link to the original security advisory. So I where I could find the “media statement” online, where customers, readers, users and the media could find it? Their response: “Symantec posts security advisories [here]. Please contact Symantec Public Relations for any information you need.”

Sorry, but I don’t think this is sufficient. Security advisories are for specialists. This is not a specialist problem. It’s a vulnerability that affects everyone who uses the software, and people need to know about it. (A Google search throws up more than 130 stories on the topic.) Symantec, I feel, needs to be upfront about the problem and blanket everyone with information, not bury it. Symantec occupies a hallowed position in the Internet world, since journalists, users and others turn to it for supposedly objective views on the state of Internet security. Symantec makes the most of this position, straddling telling us about the problem and selling us the solution for it.

Perhaps I’m overstating things here, but I feel Symantec has let us down. I need to know that if I’m entrusting Symantec with defending my valuable data and office network, it’s going to tell me if there’s a problem with that defence. It’s no good hiding, as Symantec PR does in its response to my email that “There are no exploits of this vulnerability. Symantec strongly recommends customers to follow best practices and apply the patches as soon as they become available from Symantec.” First off, there are no known exploits. I don’t see how Symantec can be 100% sure of this. One has to assume that if there’s a hole in your defensive wall, someone is going to see it. Especially if it’s been publicised. Now the world has known there is a problem with Symantec’s software since Thursday. It’s now Monday. I’m assuming the bad guys too read these websites and news agencies.

So while the argument that you should throw all your effort into plugging the hole and then telling your customers you’ve built a plug might work if the vulnerability wasn’t publicised, this wasn’t the case. It was splashed all over the shop. Symantec’s position on this process is “that we are responsible for disclosing product vulnerabilities to our customers, but in general, no vulnerability should be announced until we have developed and thoroughly tested a patch and made it available to licensed customers.” (For a list of all Symantec product vulnerabilities, look here.) This clearly wasn’t going to happen here, because the vulnerability was already made public, for better or worse. And the process of “disclosing product vulnerabilities to our customers” seems to be somewhat weak here; if the vulnerability is an obscure one, perhaps an advisory might work. But more people than just a sysadmin needed to know what was happening and yet no one, unless they really looked on Symantec’s site, was any the wiser. Still aren’t, actually, since no press release is available.

Some lessons in here. Sometimes just keeping readers, journalists, bloggers, customers in the loop helps, even when it’s bad news.

29. May 2006 by jeremy
Categories: Malware, Media, Security, Software, apps | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on A Patch in Time?