During BlackHat I proctored a session on “Optimizing the Security Researcher and CSO relationship. From the title and outline most of us assumed that this presentation would get us away from the “responsible disclosure” quagmire by focusing on the views of the customer. Most of the audience was IT practitioners, and most were interested in ways research findings might help the end customer, rather than giving them another mess to clean up while exploit code runs rampant. Or just as importantly, which threat is hype, and which threat is serious.

Unfortunately this was not to be. The panel got (once again) mired in the ethical disclosure debate, with vendors and researchers staunchly entrenched in their positions. Irreconcilable differences: we get that. But speaking with a handful of audience members after the presentation I can say they were a little ticked off. They asked repeatedly how does this help the customers? To which they got a flippant answers to the effect “we get them boxes/patches as fast as we can”.

Our contributing analyst Gunnar Peterson offered a wonderful parallel that describes this situation: The Market for Lemons. It’s an analysis of how uncertainty over quality changes a market. In a nutshell, the theory states that a vendor has a distinct advantage as they have knowledge and understanding of their product that the average consumer is incapable of discovering. The asymmetry of available information means consumers cannot judge good from bad, or high risk from low. The seller is incentivized to pass off low quality items as high quality (with premium pricing), and customers lose faith and consider all goods low quality, impacting the market in several negative ways. Sound familiar?

How does this apply to security? Think about anti-virus products for a moment and tell me this isn’t a market for lemons. The AV vendors dance on the tables talking about how they catch all this bad stuff, and thanks to NSS Labs yet another test shows they all suck. Consider product upgrade cycles where customers lag years behind the vendor’s latest release or patch for fear of getting a shiny new lemon. Low-function security products, just as with low-quality products in general, cause IT to spend more time managing, patching, reworking and fixing clunkers. So a lot of companies are justifiably a bit gun-shy to upgrade to the latest & greatest version.

We know it’s in the best interest of the vendors to downplay the severity of the issues and keep their users calm (jailbreak.me, anyone?). But they have significant data that would help the customers with their patching, workarounds, and operational security as these events transpire. It’s about time someone started looking at vulnerability disclosures from the end user perspective. Maybe some enterprising attorney general should stir the pot? Or maybe threatened legislation could get the vendor community off their collective asses? You know the deal – sometimes the threat of legislation is enough to get forward movement.

Is it time for security Lemon Laws? What do you think? Discuss in the comments.