Before we proceed to place CVD in context, we start with a few definitions.
A vulnerability is a set of conditions or behaviors that allows the violation of an explicit or implicit security policy. Vulnerabilities can be caused by software defects, configuration or design decisions, unexpected interactions between systems, or environmental changes. Successful exploitation of a vulnerability has technical and risk impacts. Vulnerabilities can arise in information processing systems as early as the design phase and as late as system deployment.
NIST offers the following definitions of vulnerability :
- "Weakness in an information system, system security procedures, internal controls, or implementation that could be exploited or triggered by a threat source"
- "A weakness in a system, application, or network that is subject to exploitation or misuse"
- "Weakness in an information system, system security procedures, internal controls, or implementation that could be exploited by a threat source"
Those familiar with the CERT Resiliency Management Model (RMM) may be accustomed to the more general definition of vulnerability in the Vulnerability Analysis and Resolution (VAR) practice: "A vulnerability is the susceptibility of an asset and associated service to disruption". A summary of the VAR process area of the CERT RMM can be found below.
While vulnerabilities can be found in many assets belonging to an organization—people, information, technology, and facilities—in this document we primarily focus on vulnerabilities in software or software-centric products and to a lesser degree services built on software-dependent products While precisely defining vulnerability can be difficult, for our purpose a vulnerability may be thought of as an undesirable, exploitable, and likely unintended feature of software or hardware components that allows an attacker to perform actions that wouldn't otherwise be available to them. The impact of such vulnerabilities can vary greatly, from being able to access someone's private data, to taking control of a computer, to causing physical damage and bodily injury.
Exploits, Malware, and Incidents
We also need to get a few quick technical terms out of the way so they don't cloud the remaining discussion.
- An exploit is software that uses a vulnerability to achieve some effect. Sometimes the effect is as simple as demonstrating the existence of the vulnerability. Other times it plays a role in enabling adversaries to attack systems.
- Malware is software used by adversaries to compromise the security of a system or systems. But not all malware involves exploits.
- Finally, an incident is a violation or an attempted violation of a security policy, and may involve malware, exploits, or vulnerabilities (or none of these!)
Vulnerability Response (VR)
Vulnerability Response (VR) is the overall set of processes and practices that deal with the existence of vulnerabilities in systems. VR encompasses everything from reducing the introduction of vulnerabilities as part of a Secure Development Lifecycle (SDL) through the remediation of deployed vulnerabilities via patch deployment.
Vulnerability response in the design and development phases often takes the form of practices such as threat modeling [3,4], secure coding [5,6,7], and architecture risk analysis [8,9]. However, such practices seem unlikely to ever completely eliminate vulnerabilities from being introduced into released software and deployed systems. For those vulnerabilities that do escape detection by these early lifecycle practices, it is necessary to plan for their eventual discovery and disclosure.
The goals of vulnerability response include the following:
- Limit attacker advantage over defenders.
- Reduce the population of vulnerable product instances as quickly as possible.
- Reduce the impact of attacks against vulnerable systems.
Vulnerability discovery can take many forms, from specifically targeted software testing to simple use of a system by a security-aware individual who notices some feature that seems out of place. In order for that discovery to be relevant to our discussion, it must result in a vulnerability report. Most discussions about vulnerability disclosure are referring to the handling of reports of newly discovered vulnerabilities in products for which no patch exists (for a more nuanced discussion regarding why we're eschewing the term zero-day vulnerability here, see . We further distinguish vulnerability discovery from vulnerability scanning below.
Coordinated Vulnerability Disclosure
Coordinated Vulnerability Disclosure is the process of gathering information from vulnerability finders, coordinating the sharing of that information between relevant stakeholders, and disclosing the existence of software vulnerabilities and their mitigations to various stakeholders, including the public. CVD is an important aspect of any successful VR process. CVD inputs are vulnerability reports arising from vulnerability discovery practices. CVD outputs for product vulnerabilities (software or hardware) usually include patches as well as vulnerability report documents or vulnerability database records, typically with some formal identifier (e.g., CVE , VU# , and BID ). Many operational vulnerabilities such as router misconfigurations, website vulnerabilities, or cloud service problems can be fixed in situ by the operator, but often do not result in a public disclosure.
ISO/IEC 29147  defines Vulnerability Disclosure as follows:
Vulnerability disclosure is a process through which vendors and vulnerability finders may work cooperatively in finding solutions that reduce the risks associated with a vulnerability. It encompasses actions such as reporting, coordinating, and publishing information about a vulnerability and its resolution.
The goals of vulnerability disclosure include the following: a) ensuring that identified vulnerabilities are addressed; b) minimizing the risk from vulnerabilities; c) providing users with sufficient information to evaluate risks from vulnerabilities to their systems;
The stakeholders—in other words, the people who care about the existence of a vulnerability—vary on a case by case basis, but typically include those below:
- the reporter or finder of the vulnerability (often an independent security researcher)
- the vendor (developer) of the component that contains the vulnerability ("originating vendor")
- vendors that utilize the component containing the vulnerability in their own products ("downstream vendors")
- coordinators, vulnerability databases, or other organizations that specialize in incident response and vulnerability handling
- the general public / consumers who purchase and use products containing the vulnerable component
Disclosure, in turn, is the process by which information about a vulnerability (ideally with advice for mitigating or fixing it) is released to consumers of the product, and more generally, the public at large. There is no single "right" way to do this. Sometimes, vulnerability information is disclosed in a blog post by the finder of the vulnerability, or emailed to a security mailing list. Sometimes the vendor issues a security advisory to its customers or to the public. At the CERT/CC, we publish Vulnerability Notes on our website, often in parallel with other parties (i.e., the finder of the vulnerability and/or the vendor of the vulnerable product).
Furthermore, there persists a lack of agreement within the security community on whether, and under what conditions, vulnerability information should be disclosed to vendors, other stakeholders, and the public. Different people sometimes hold strongly differing opinions about the disclosure of software vulnerabilities. These differences tend to center on the timing of a vulnerability report's release, the type and degree of details included, and the audience to whom the report is provided.
As a result, the character of information in a vulnerability report can vary greatly. Some reports only warn of a general vulnerability in a specific product. Others are more detailed and provide actual examples of how to attack the flaw (these examples are called "proof of concept code," often shortened to "PoC").
It is worth reiterating that disclosure is not a singular event even for a single vulnerability. For more on the different phases of the process, see Section 4.
Who is Responsible Here?
You may be familiar with the term responsible disclosure  and wonder how it's different from CVD. The history of responsible disclosure makes for a long story best told over adult beverages at a hotel bar during a security conference, so we won't go into it here. Without belaboring the topic, the sticking point comes down to the fact that what constitutes "responsible" behavior is a matter of opinion that is always framed within the values of whoever is using the term. The vendors cry, "Disclosing a vulnerability without an available patch is not responsible!" "Not fixing this vulnerability quicker is not responsible!" the finders retort. Meanwhile, the deployer asks, "Who's responsible for fixing this?" while knowing the answer all too well. Because of the inherent value judgement and lack of agreement on its definition, the CERT/CC, along with numerous other organizations, advocates for the use of the term Coordinated Vulnerability Disclosure (CVD) [16,17] to reduce misunderstanding and promote cooperation.
Vulnerability Management (VM)
Vulnerability Management (VM) is the common term for tasks such as vulnerability scanning, patch testing, and deployment. VM practices nearly always deal with the output of CVD practices, not the inputs. VM practices focus on the positive action of identifying specific systems affected by known (post-disclosure) vulnerabilities and reducing the risks they pose through the application of mitigations or remediation such as patches or configuration changes. NIST Special Publication 800-40 provides a Guide to Enterprise Patch Management Technologies . VM practices also appear within the Vulnerability Analysis and Resolution operational process of the CERT RMM .
Vulnerability Analysis and Resolution (VAR)
Vulnerability Analysis and Resolution (VAR) is an operational process described within the CERT RMM that closely overlaps with the concept of Vulnerability Management. Although the RMM is designed with a focus on operational resilience for organizations, there is sufficient overlap with our topic that it's worth highlighting here. Within the RMM's VAR process area, a number of goals and practices are identified:
- Prepare for Vulnerability Analysis and Resolution.
- Establish Scope – The assets and operational environments that must be examined for vulnerabilities are identified.
- Establish a Vulnerability Analysis and Resolution Strategy.
- Establish and maintain a process for identifying and analyzing vulnerabilities.
- Identify Sources of Vulnerability Information.
- Discover Vulnerabilities.
- Analyze Vulnerabilities to determine whether they need to be reduced or eliminated.
- Manage Exposure to Vulnerabilities – Strategies are developed and implemented to manage exposure to identified vulnerabilities.
- Identify Root Causes – The root causes of vulnerabilities are examined to improve vulnerability analysis and resolution and reduce organizational exposure. Perform review of identified vulnerabilities to determine and address underlying causes.
Products and Instances
In talking about things that have vulnerabilities, we try to maintain a clear distinction between a product being vulnerable, and an instance of a product being vulnerable. For example, Windows 10 (the product) might be vulnerable to a specific flaw, but that is a separate situation from a server running Windows 10 (an instance) being vulnerable. Vulnerabilities affecting products may not always affect every instance of a product; for example, a vulnerability may require a special configuration or setup to be exploited, so any instance not in that configuration state would actually be unaffected by the vulnerability, despite the product at-large being vulnerable.
This distinction becomes important when one is talking about the practices associated with Vulnerability Management (VM)—namely vulnerability scanning—in contrast to CVD and vulnerability discovery. VM entails the identification of instances of a product on which action must be taken to remediate known vulnerabilities in the product. VM is concerned with the eradication of the instances of known vulnerabilities in deployed systems, whereas CVD is concerned with the repair of vulnerabilities at the product level.
Incident vs. Vulnerability Response
Sometimes the term "Incident Response" is used synonymously with Vulnerability Response. These two concepts are related, but different; Vulnerability Response specifically indicates responding to reports of product vulnerabilities, usually via the CVD process, whereas Incident Response is more general and can also include other security events such as network intrusions. We will generally stick to the Vulnerability Response terminology since this work is specifically about CVD.
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