Security vendor F-Secure contacted SonyBMG and First4Internet about the companies’ rootkit software on October 4 – about four weeks before the issue became public – according to a Business Week story by Steve Hamm.
Here’s the key part of the article’s chronology:
Nevertheless, Sony BMG asked First4Internet to investigate. Both Sony BMG and F-Secure say that it was on Oct. 17 that F-Secure first spelled out the full scope of the problem to Sony. The security company’s report on the matter, sent that day to First4Internet and Sony BMG, confirmed there was a rootkit in XCP and warned that it made it possible for hackers to hide viruses and protect them from antivirus software products. F-Secure referred to XCP as a “major security risk,” according to a copy of the e-mail supplied to BusinessWeek Online by F-Secure.
Sony BMG says it asked the two software companies to investigate and find a solution to the problem. “From the moment our people learned that F-Secure had identified a potential problem we contacted our vendor and in no uncertain terms told them you have to get with F-Secure and find out what needs to be done about it,” says Daniel Mandil, Sony BMG’s general counsel.
BOGGED DOWN. What happened next is in dispute. F-Secure had a conference call with executives of First4Internet on Oct. 20. It says First4Internet argued that there was no real problem because only a few people knew of the vulnerability XCP created, and said an update of the XCP software, due out early next year, would fix the problem on all future CDs.
At first glance, this looks like a standard story about disclosure of a security vulnerability: vendor ships insecure product; researchers report flaw privately; vendor drags feet; researchers report flaw publicly; problem fixed right away. The story features the classic vendor error of seeing insecurity as a public relations problem rather than a customer safety issue: “there was no real problem because only a few people knew of the vulnerability”.
But if we read this as just another vulnerability disclosure, we’re missing an important part of the story. In the usual case, the security vulnerability exists by mistake – the vendor doesn’t know the vulnerability exists until somebody points it out. Here, the rootkit-like functionality was not a mistake but a deliberate design decision by the vendor.
Which suggests the question of what exactly F-Secure was disclosing to Sony and First4Internet, or more precisely what it was disclosing that they didn’t already know. They must have known about the rootkit already – it was a design decision they had made – and if they had any kind of clue they would have known that users would hate having a rootkit on their machines, especially one that provided an obvious hiding place for other malware. As far as I can see, the only new information F-Secure would have disclosed was that F-Secure planned to treat the program as malware.
It’s interesting, too, that other makers of anti-malware tools didn’t seem to notice the problem until Mark Russinovich’s public disclosure. As of mid-September, this malware had been on the market for months and presumably had been installed on hundreds of thousands of computers, but still none of the anti-malware vendors had discovered it. (According to the Business Week article, F-Secure didn’t discover the malware itself, but learned of it on Sept. 30 from John Guarino, a computer technician in New York who had discovered it on several clients’ computers.) It’s not a good sign that all of the major anti-malware vendors missed it for so long.
Finally, we have to consider the possibility that Sony and First4Internet understood the significance of the rootkit, but simply felt that copy protection trumped users’ security. First4Internet probably held that view – otherwise it’s hard to explain their design decision to deploy rootkit functionality – and Sony may well have held it too. We know already that entertainment companies want to redesign our computers in the hope (which is ultimately futile) of stopping copying. From there, it’s not so large a step to decide that users’ security simply must be sacrificed on the altar of copy protection.
What did SonyBMG know, and when did it know it? We’ll find out more as the lawsuits proceed.