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US Used Zero-Day Exploits Before It Had Policies for Them

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AROUND THE SAME time the US and Israel were already developing and unleashing Stuxnet on computers in Iran, using five zero-day exploits to get the digital weapon onto machines there, the government realized it needed a policy for how it should handle zero-day vulnerabilities, according to a new document obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The document, found among a handful of heavily redacted pages released after the civil liberties group sued the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to obtain them, sheds light on the backstory behind the development of the government’s zero-day policy and offers some insight into the motivations for establishing it. What the documents don’t do, however, is provide support for the government’s assertions that it discloses the “vast majority” of zero-day vulnerabilities it discovers instead of keeping them secret and exploiting them.

“The level of transparency we have now is not enough,” says Andrew Crocker a legal fellow at EFF. “It doesn’t answer a lot of questions about how often the intelligence community is disclosing, whether they’re really following this process, and who is involved in making these decisions in the executive branch. More transparency is needed.”

The timeframe around the development of the policy does make clear, however, that the government was deploying zero-days to attack systems long before it had established a formal policy for their use.

Task Force Launched in 2008

Titled “Vulnerability Equities Process Highlights,” (.pdf) the document appears to have been created July 8, 2010, based on a date in its file name. Vulnerability equities process in the title refers to the process whereby the government assesses zero-day software security holes that it either finds or buys from contractors in order to determine whether they should be disclosed to the software vendor to be patched or kept secret so intelligence agencies can use them to hack into systems as they please. The government’s use of zero-day vulnerabilities is controversial, not least because when it withholds information about software vulnerabilities to exploit them in targeted systems, it leaves every other system that use the same software also vulnerable to being hacked, including U.S. government computers and critical infrastructure systems.

According to the document, the equities process grew out of a task force the government formed in 2008 to develop a plan for improving its ability “to use the full spectrum of offensive capabilities to better defend U.S. information systems.”

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