Google bug-hunting Project Zero could face software developer troubles

How Google handles conflicts with software vendors will be important to Project Zero's success, experts say

Google's launch of a bug-hunting initiative has raised concerns over how the company will handle conflicts with vendors unable to patch software before Google's deadline for reporting vulnerabilities.

Tussles with software developers are sure to occur during Google's effort, announced Tuesday, to find zero-day vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by cybercriminals.

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The Internet giant is hiring an A-team of researchers whose fulltime job will be to tear into popular software and find unknown vulnerabilities that could pose a risk to people on the Web.

On Wednesday, security pros reacted favorably to Google's initiative, called Project Zero. However, some were concerned over how flexible the company would be, if it finds a major vulnerability that cannot be fixed quickly, if at all.

"At this point, Project Zero will be in a tough position of either sitting on the knowledge of a large security vulnerability or publicly releasing the details of an issue that has no feasible solution," Michael Coates, chairman of the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) and director of product security at Shape Security, said.

"This is a challenge faced by all security researchers, but I expect Project Zero to face this problem more often given their talented and focused team."

Disagreements could also arise between a vendor and Google over the seriousness of a bug.

"Google is going to shine a light on vulnerabilities or issues that the authoring firm may not agree are significant," Darien Kindlund, director of threat research at FireEye, said. "Arguing with such a large firm publicly can be a big negative."

While vendors may have good reasons to push for more time to fix bugs or to not have them reported at all, Google will be under pressure to react in a way that maintains its credibility.

"Transparency with bug discoveries and timely disclosure with vendors is going to be paramount for Google to establish its good intentions and keep skeptics at bay," Jérôme Segura, senior security researcher at Malwarebytes, said.

Google intends to give vendors between 60 and 90 days to release a patch before posting the vulnerability in a publicly accessible online database. If the flaw is being exploited by cybercriminals, then Google plans to move much faster with the disclosure.

Some experts believe Google will show some flexibility with its timetable.

"Some may be concerned with Google’s power here, but it would not serve them in the long run to damage other businesses," Steve Hultquist, chief evangelist of RedSeal Networks, said.

No one expects Project Zero to solve the web security problems posed by software bugs. But if the initiative is handled right, it could help.

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"What they may do is shine some light on the vulnerabilities in our most important software packages and encourage other companies to donate resources to securing outside software," Matthew Green, an assistant research professor at John Hopkins University, said.

Green hopes Project Zero is able to go beyond just bug hunting and develop tools to find vulnerabilities before they become a problem.

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