Patch and Pray

Von Scott Berinato

"We get hot fixes everyday, and we're loath to put them in," says Frank Clark, senior vice president and CIO of Covenant Health Care, whose six-hospital network was knocked out when Slammer hit, causing doctors to revert to paper-based care. "We believe it's safer to wait until the vendor certifies the hot fixes in a service pack."

On the other hand, if Clark had deployed every patch he was supposed to, nothing would have been different. He would have been knocked out just the same.

Process Horribilis

Slammer neatly demonstrates everything that's wrong with manufacturing software patches. It begins with disclosure of the vulnerability, which happened in the case of Slammer in July 2002, when Microsoft issued patch MS02-039. The patch steeled a file called ssnetlib.dll against buffer overflows.

"Disclosure basically gives hackers an attack map," says Gary McGraw, CTO of Cigital and the author of Building Secure Software. "Suddenly they know exactly where to go. If it's true that people don't patch--and they don't--disclosure helps mostly the hackers."

Essentially, disclosure's a starter's gun. Once it goes off, it's a footrace between hackers (who now know what file to exploit) and everyone else (who must all patch their systems successfully). The good guys never win this race. Someone probably started working on a worm into ssnetlib.dll when Microsoft released MS02-039, or shortly thereafter.

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