Transvasive Security

the human factor

CVSS, Patches, and Vulnerability Management

Jack Jones posted a critique of CVSS to his blog this morning. I’m a big fan of FAIR, and his criticism of CVSS is valid, but I just don’t see how even a “fixed” version of CVSS will ever be practically useful.

The CVSS scoring methodology creates a score to measure the “risk” of a vulnerability, presumably to help people or automated systems prioritize a response, usually installing a patch. Jack, who has made measuring risk his career, is well qualified to assess how well CVSS works. He rightly points out problems with the CVSS calculation, including its use arbitrary weighted values, and using math with ordinal scales, and suggests that FAIR might provide an alternative that fixes these problems. Even if the RMI delivers a CVSS alternative, I’m not convinced that a vulnerability scoring tool that accurately measures risk has practical value.

With regard to frequency/probability of loss, CVSS focuses on the likelihood of attacker success from a couple of different angles, but never addresses the frequency/likelihood of an attack occurring in the first place.

Maybe I’ve just lead a sheltered life, but I’ve never found CVSS terribly useful. Having been both a Windows administrator and the guy responsible for reviewing the latest vulnerabilities and patches, I can say that for most IT staff, vulnerability management can be broken down into 2 basic steps:

  1. Wait for the monthly Microsoft patch release
  2. Deploy the patches

CVSS doesn’t even matter in the most basic case. Small companies without a dedicated IT staff don’t need CVSS, since their vendors will tell them which patches are important. If they’re good, they’ll deploy Microsoft patches automatically, and if they’re really good, they’ll even have reporting on how well systems are patched. Even so, the majority will still be vulnerable since the non-OS vendors’ applications (Adobe Reader and Flash) won’t be up to date, partly because can’t take of Microsoft’s (or Apple’s) built-in updating mechanism. (Although, Apple is changing this with the Mac App Store)

For those companies fortunate enough to have security staff dedicated to running a vulnerability management program, CVSS still doesn’t help. The more advanced version of VM really breaks down to 4 steps:

  1. Wait for the monthly Microsoft (or other vendor’s) patch release
  2. Determine how quickly the patches need to be deployed
  3. Deploy the patches
  4. Scan your systems to find systems that aren’t patched

CVSS might be able to help with step 2, but in practice it doesn’t matter. At most, there are really four different speeds to deploy patches, Emergency, Accelerated, Normal, and Eventually. Emergency deployments are typically in response to an attack; as in, “Drop everything and put everybody on it, SQL Slammer has taken down our network!” No help from CVSS here, you’ll know when it’s an emergency. Which leaves us with Accelerated (let’s put forth an extra effort to get the patch deployed faster), Normal, (deploy on the normal schedule) and Eventually (security doesn’t care when this patch gets deployed). CVSS in theory helps decide which of these three to pick, but in my opinion, it fails to answer the key questions which are most helpful in determining how hard to push on the gas.

There’s a cost associated with each patch we track within our VM system. Each patch means we spend more time on reviewing, deploying, scanning, and re-deploying. To manage this cost effectively, we need to remember why we’re managing vulnerabilities in the first place. The bad guys are trying to break in. For the majority of internal systems, (desktops and servers) all we really care about is whether or not the bad guys, most often represented by malware, can get on to the system. Attacks that matter after you’re already in don’t really need to be fixed, since once the enemy has a foothold, it’s pretty much game over; there are too many ways, especially on Windows systems, to take over, and it’s really expensive to fix. Information leakage vulnerabilities do matter, but again, if you’ve already got an attacker on your internal network, you’ve got bigger problems. Focusing on what’s actually exploited reduces vulnerabilities to two classes: the attacks the bad guys use to break into systems, (unauthenticated network attacks and client-side desktop/browser attacks) and everything else. Again, CVSS doesn’t help here. The cost of patching is high enough that “everything else” should be automatically relegated to deploy Eventually (don’t care), leaving a decision on whether or not an Accelerated deployment is called for.

Factoring in risk in deciding whether or not to push a patch faster than normal is a good idea, but CVSS leaves out the single most important factor in judging the risk: the likelihood that an attacker will exploit the vulnerability. This omission is excusable, since predicting how likely an attack will happen is an educated guess at best. Predicting is hard enough that it’s best to use a simple rule of thumb; if there are exploits in the wild – the bad guys are actively exploiting the vulnerability – then do an Accelerated deployment. Otherwise, go with Normal.

I may be missing other use cases for CVSS, or missing the point entirely, but for what seems to be it’s main use case, vulnerability management, CVSS fails to deliver practical value. Instead of building complicated scoring systems, simple rules based on knowledge of the attackers nicely solve the patch management prioritization problem.