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The emergence of a high-profile group of security professionals promising third-party software fixes during zero-day attacks has rekindled a debate on the merits—and risks—associated with deploying unsupported product updates.

The Zero Day Emergency Response Team, or ZERT, stepped out of stealth mode on Sept. 22 with a stopgap patch for a VML (Vector Markup Language) flaw that was the target of drive-by malware downloads—and, with a roster of well-respected security professionals on board, the concept of using a temporary fix ahead of Microsoft’s official update gained instant credibility.

Click here to read about ZERT’s emergency IE patch.

Marcus Sachs, a former White House IT security expert who agreed to serve as corporate evangelist for the ZERT effort, said third-party mitigations will become even more important in what he describes as “a nasty zero-day world.”

“This patch is just another arrow in the quiver. These guys [in ZERT] are some of the best-known reverse engineers and security researchers. It’s a tight-knit group that has worked for years to make the Internet a safer place,” said Sachs, in Washington.

“This isn’t a patch created by some guy in a basement. It’s something that has been tested as rigorously as humanly possible,” he said in an interview with eWEEK.

Sachs, who serves as a deputy director in the Computer Science Laboratory at SRI International, stressed that third-party patches should always carry “buyer-beware” tags because they are unsupported, but he believes IT administrators should strongly consider testing and deploying updates during emergencies.

“In this case, Microsoft had not yet issued a patch, and we had already confirmed zero-day attacks were spreading in the wild. We’re not telling anyone to use it; we’re just offering it as an alternative,” he added.

The ZERT patch is the third instance this year where a third-party fix was pushed out ahead of an official Microsoft update. In January, at the height of the WMF (Windows Metafile) virus attack, reverse-engineering guru Ilfak Guilfanov created and distributed a hotfix that was endorsed by the SANS ISC (Internet Storm Center), a group that tracks malicious Internet activity.

In March, two well-respected security companies —eEye Digital Security and Determina—shipped hotfixes for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer to provide cover for a code execution hole that was being attacked. eEye, in Aliso Viejo, Calif., claims its patch was downloaded more than 150,000 times in a two-week span and said feedback from IT professionals confirmed that there was a desperate need for third-party patches, depending on the severity of the public exploit and in advance of an official patch.

Peter Coffee has zero tolerance for Microsoft Office. Click here to read his analysis.

“Is there a need for third-party patches? Absolutely,” said Ross Brown, CEO at eEye. “Most of the customers that downloaded our patch [in March] were from corporate domains. They were testing and deploying on thousands of systems. We know for a fact that people found it valuable enough to use it.”

Next Page: Frustration over Microsoft’s slow responses.

Joe Stewart, a reverse-engineering specialist at SecureWorks, in Chicago, said he volunteered his services to ZERT willingly out of frustration with Microsoft’s slow response to the threat. “Microsoft needs to start paying attention and recognize that there’s a need for an out-of-band patch. It’s somewhat irresponsible to tell customers to wait two weeks for Patch Tuesday while computers are being hosed with malware,” he said.

But not everyone is jumping wildly onto the third-party patching wagon. “I will not use the unofficial patch, nor can I think of anyone I would recommend it to,” said Jesper Johansson, a former Microsoft security consultant now working at a Seattle-based online retailer. “Personally, I worry about putting unverified and untrusted binaries on my system, and about the likelihood that they are going to be any higher quality than the ones Microsoft releases.”

Johansson believes the decision about using a third-party fix is a risk management issue that has to be weighed properly. For a business with high security requirements, an unofficial patch could be practical. “If your risk and the cost of the attack are very high, then you may want to consider the unofficial patch, but I cannot in the best conscience recommend it right now,” Johansson said.

Susan Bradley was faced with that exact scenario during the recent VML crisis. As partner and self-described “chief cook and bottle washer” at Fresno, Calif., accounting firm Tamiyasu, Smith, Horn and Braun, Bradley weighed the risks and opted to use Microsoft’s prepatch mitigation and avoid the ZERT fix altogether.

Click here to listen to an OnSecurity podcast about third-party patches.

“For me, it’s a support issue. I can’t install something on my systems that is unsupported. I’m just not comfortable with a third-party patch that takes a machine out of support,” Bradley said in an interview.

“It’s a risk management issue for us. I just can’t take the chance and bet on an unofficial fix. The cost of putting my network out of support is just too high,” she added.

Next Page: “Last-ditch option.”

For Dave Goldsmith, president of New York-based penetration testing company Matasano Security, a third-party patch should only be considered as a “last-ditch option” if there is a service at risk that’s critical enough that all known mitigations are insufficient.

“In that scenario, I would recommend it for enterprise clients, provided they are comfortable with any risks associated with potentially violating support contracts,” Goldsmith said. “They would need to test it extensively first, [but] the real problem with this is that an enterprise has little recourse if the patch breaks things, or is in fact malicious.”

According to ZERT spokesman Gadi Evron, the group plans to release VML patches for out-of-support Windows versions, offering an option for businesses still using older OS versions because of application compatibility concerns.

The group—which boasts a roster of volunteers that includes Halvar Flake, CEO and head of research at Sabre Security; Paul Vixie, founder of the ISC (Internet Software Consortium); Roger Thompson, chief technology officer of Exploit Prevention Labs; and Florian Weimer, a German computer expert specializing in Linux and DNS (Domain Name System) security—will roll out hotfixes from Windows 98, Windows ME and Windows 2000 (pre-SP4).

Businesses running those OS versions now have to pay for custom support from Microsoft because the software maker does not offer free patches for out-of-support products.

There is a general feeling that ZERT’s patches for older OS versions could prove very valuable, but, as Johansson explains, “It is misguided to think that patching a single issue will prolong the life of a system designed to a threat model that was accurate eight to 10 years ago.

“I can’t recommend anyone to patch, or even stick with, an out-of-support operating system. The fact remains that this is only one issue those systems are vulnerable to. They need to be replaced with up-to-date systems. It is not prudent risk management in my opinion,” Johansson said.

According to eEye’s Brown, the big win from the ZERT initiative is an acknowledgment from Microsoft that its rigid monthly patch cycle is not always a practical approach to securing its customers.

“I have no doubt that ZERT pushed Microsoft to go out-of-band [with the VML patch released on Sept. 26],” Brown said. “It puts pressure on Microsoft to be more responsive to serious issues. They wouldn’t have gone out-of-cycle if ZERT wasn’t there, offering an alternative that they’re uncomfortable with,” he added.

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