DOD’s Vulnerability Disclosure Program for Contractors Is in Demand

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The Defense Cyber Crime Center launched a pilot with “a few dozen” companies participating.

A Defense Department unit kicked off a pilot program to allow hackers to report vulnerabilities in systems operated by “a few dozen” defense-industrial-base companies Monday.

“The program received numerous applicants,” a spokesperson for Defense’s Cyber Crime Center told Nextgov. “However, during this initial launch pilot, we will be moving forward with a few dozen.”

For the pilot, DC3 will act as a middleman in the program between researchers and the DIB companies. A lot of the work involved in maintaining a vulnerability disclosure program usually involves validating and prioritizing the reports submitted by more than 2,000 participating researchers around the globe. Under the pilot, DC3 will take on that triaging responsibility and will even provide guidance for remediation of vulnerabilities. But the center will stop short of fixing them. That’s the responsibility of the companies.

DC3, not the companies, will have the power to consider vulnerability reports closed. But officials said they would consider plans of action and milestones and official acceptance of risk when deciding whether to do so. The program is only enforceable on the honor system.

The spokesperson would not disclose the exact number of companies participating. But, in line with a feasibility study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute, the department set out to accept the applications of no more than 20

“DC3 continues to be impressed by the increased interest and openness of DIB partners to readily engage in innovative cyber vulnerability defense measures,” the spokesperson said. 

The exact assets within scope of the program are listed on the HackerOne page for the program. They include several websites but also services and endpoints. Under the vulnerability disclosure program, if security researchers stay within the scope and policies outlined—such as refraining from testing for denial of service attacks, for example—the participating companies promise not to pursue prosecution under the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

During an industry-day webinar held to promote the program to the sector in February, Kristopher Johnson, director of the program, said the CFAA, which has been the basis for what critics describe as extreme sentences for computer hacking, is outdated.

“Technically, these are violations of the antiquated Computer Fraud and Abuse Act,” he said. “The CFAA says that any of [this] basic research is a violation. But we know that people are out there doing it so we set up a channel for them. Hackers gonna hack, researchers gonna research, it's better that you know what they're seeing out there before your adversary.”

The DOD’s own vulnerability disclosure program has been around for four years, but the Carnegie Mellon study that laid the groundwork for the new DC3 pilot showed that 94% of Fortune 2000 companies have yet to set up a free VDP to allow hackers to share the flaws they find in systems.    

And Johnson noted during the webinar a number of policies from the Office of Management and Budget, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and Congress are moving in the direction of making VDPs mandatory for government contractors. 

Johnson particularly advised small- and medium-sized companies to join the program and take advantage of the free services the DC3 is offering. 

Johnson said depending on how it goes, the pilot could be expanded to include more companies even before its year-long duration is out. He encouraged interested companies to sign up so that they can be plugged in when that happens. While he couldn’t disclose the size of the team, he assured members of the DIB the capacity is there to handle incoming reports.

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