The Price of Restricting Vulnerability Publications

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Full Title of Reference

The Price of Restricting Vulnerability Publications

Full Citation

Jennifer Stisa Granick, The Price of Restricting Vulnerability Publications, 9 Intl. J. CommLaw & Pol'y, 2005. Web



Key Words

Disclosure Policy, Information Security, Software Vulnerability, Zero-Day Exploit


There are calls from some quarters to restrict the publication of information about security vulnerabilities in an effort to limit the number of people with the knowledge and ability to attack computer systems. Scientists in other fields have considered similar proposals and rejected them, or adopted only narrow, voluntary restrictions. As in other fields of science, there is a real danger that publication restrictions will inhibit the advancement of the state of the art in computer security. Proponents of disclosure restrictions argue that computer security information is different from other scientific research because it is often expressed in the form of functioning software code. Code has a dual nature, as both speech and tool. While researchers readily understand the information expressed in code, code enables many more people to do harm more readily than with the non-functional information typical of most research publications. Yet, there are strong reasons to reject the argument that code is different, and that restrictions are therefore good policy. Code's functionality may help security as much as it hurts it and the open distribution of functional code has valuable effects for consumers, including the ability to pressure vendors for more secure products and to counteract monopolistic practices.

Part One of this paper explains the current state of computer (in)security and sets forth three ways to restrict publications followed by the most common arguments for and against. It then illustrates the popularity of security publication restrictions with an overview of proposed and enacted publication restrictions. Part Two reviews the debate surrounding publication restrictions in other scientific fields and shows that, except in rare cases, policy makers and scientists agree that the strong interest in sharing, peer review and cooperation that is essential to the development of scientific knowledge outweighs the benefit to security interests attained from restraining publication. The law cannot regulate code without impacting research, so policy makers must decide whether any security gain from disclosure restrictions is worth the price. Part Three asks how computer security is different from other fields of science and whether these differences warrant a more or less restrictive approach to regulating vulnerability publications. The paper concludes that while the functionality of code superficially appears to be a strong factor in favor of limiting computer security publications, security is not improved by secrecy in the computer context. Additionally, code restrictions undesirably favor anti- competitive practices on the part of market actors in a networked economy. The public interest particularly benefits from openness in computer security.

Additional Notes and Highlights


  I. The State of Computer (In)security
  II. Types of Vulnerability Disclosure Restrictions
    A. Audience Restrictions
    B. Time Restrictions
    C. Information Restrictions
  III. Proposed and Enacted Publication Restrictions
  I. Scientific Advancement Requires Publication and Openness
  II. How Publication Restrictions Cannot Target the Utilitarian Aspects of Code Without Chilling Legitimate Research and Burdening the Advancement of Computer Security
  I. Computer Security Benefits More From Widespread Dissemination of State of the Art Knowledge Than Do Other Scientific Fields
  II. Computer Insecurity Poses Less Harm Than That Threatened by “Dangerous Science”
  III. The Likelihood of Abuse of Computer Security Information is Greater Than In Other Scientific Fields
  IV. Secrecy Is Unlikely to Benefit Security More Than Openness in the Context of Computer Networks
  V. Publication Restrictions Contribute to the Market Failure in Security Provision