Connecting state and local government leaders
Cities and states are increasingly adopting vulnerability disclosure policies that encourage “white hat” or ethical cybersecurity researchers to identify and report security weaknesses in government websites and systems.
Security researchers, sometimes called “white hat” or ethical hackers, have been hunting down bugs and vulnerabilities in complex computer systems for years. They probe public-facing platforms to identify security weaknesses and alert the system’s owner, allowing organizations to eliminate the vulnerabilities before cyber criminals take advantage of them.
Most organizations appreciate being alerted to problems in software or on websites by security specialists—and some even offer compensation to penetration testers and bug hunters. But not all systems managers have welcomed outsiders exploring their software or computers and have prosecuted researchers for accessing systems without authorization.
That’s changing. As cyberattacks against state and local governments continue to increase, public officials are beginning to acknowledge the importance of ethical hackers. But they are also recognizing the need for ground rules.
Enterprises that want to take advantage of the specialized skills security researchers offer and still protect their data and code have developed so-called vulnerability disclosure policies. These policies spell out which systems outside security researchers may investigate, how researchers should submit reports, and how and when the system owner will respond. They also include a clear commitment that legal action will not be taken against anyone making a good faith effort to follow the rules.
The Cybersecurity and Security Infrastructure Agency, or CISA, in September 2020 required federal agencies to establish such policies, which it said are “an essential element of an effective enterprise vulnerability management program.” It also provided a template to help agencies get started.
And state and local organizations have followed CISA’s lead. In February 2021, the National Association of Secretaries of State released an issue briefing on coordinated vulnerability disclosure. It describes the typical elements of such policies, state and federal examples to follow, and recommendations on how to get started.
New York City’s Cyber Command launched the its first vulnerability disclosure policy program at the end of October to facilitate developers’ and researchers’ ability to identify and report potential problems in city-owned websites and systems. In the four months since establishing the program, two vulnerabilities have been reported, verified and accepted for remediation.
“NYC Cyber Command is committed to making our city the most cyber resilient in the world. We realize we can’t achieve this goal alone though,” Kelly Moan, the city’s chief information security officer, told Route Fifty in an email. “This program demonstrates our commitment to making it easier for others to join us in this mission through the disclosure of vulnerabilities. Having more eyes on the city’s cyber landscape—and providing people the means to say something if they see something—will ultimately make us all safer.”
Under the program, security researchers can conduct certain tests to identify vulnerabilities in the city’s internet-accessible systems and applications and report those findings to NYC Cyber Command, Moan said. Security researchers can only test for certain vulnerabilities that align with a regularly updated industry report outlining the top 10 most critical web applications risks, she added.
Researchers must send their findings through the vulnerability disclosure website. “If a vulnerability is accepted, we notify the affected agency, and our vulnerability management team works closely with them to ensure the issue is fixed in a timely manner,” Moan said. “Once the vulnerability is fixed, we start a validation process that involves attempting to reproduce the vulnerability. If the vulnerability is no longer able to be exploited, it is deemed fixed and the researcher who reported it is publicly acknowledged on the responsible disclosure website.”
Los Angeles went live with its vulnerability disclosure policy last March. The program covers only websites directly owned and controlled by the city of Los Angeles and, so far, 244 reported issues have been resolved.
In 2022, Idaho joined Iowa, Ohio and South Carolina in establishing an election-specific vulnerability disclosure policy, and in Georgia, hackers earn money, or “bug bounties,” for finding exploitable holes in benefits systems.
New York’s Moan said that now is the right time to institute a vulnerability disclosure program because “it’s always the right time to take action to combat cyberattacks.”
This year, she said, NYC Cyber Command “will continue to evaluate and update the program to adapt to the ever-evolving threat landscape, with a strong focus on empowering people to report vulnerabilities and ensuring that the recognized flaws are fixed promptly. We’re excited about the program’s potential to grow in the year ahead as more of the public learns about it.”
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