Zero Days, Thousands of Nights [Zero-day – 6.9 Year Average Life Expectancy]

Zero Days, Thousands of Nights – The Life and Times of Zero-Day Vulnerabilities and Their Exploits by Lillian Ablon, Timothy Bogart.

From the post:

Zero-day vulnerabilities — software vulnerabilities for which no patch or fix has been publicly released — and their exploits are useful in cyber operations — whether by criminals, militaries, or governments — as well as in defensive and academic settings.

This report provides findings from real-world zero-day vulnerability and exploit data that could augment conventional proxy examples and expert opinion, complement current efforts to create a framework for deciding whether to disclose or retain a cache of zero-day vulnerabilities and exploits, inform ongoing policy debates regarding stockpiling and vulnerability disclosure, and add extra context for those examining the implications and resulting liability of attacks and data breaches for U.S. consumers, companies, insurers, and for the civil justice system broadly.

The authors provide insights about the zero-day vulnerability research and exploit development industry; give information on what proportion of zero-day vulnerabilities are alive (undisclosed), dead (known), or somewhere in between; and establish some baseline metrics regarding the average lifespan of zero-day vulnerabilities, the likelihood of another party discovering a vulnerability within a given time period, and the time and costs involved in developing an exploit for a zero-day vulnerability.

Longevity and Discovery by Others

  • Zero-day exploits and their underlying vulnerabilities have a rather long average life expectancy (6.9 years). Only 25 percent of vulnerabilities do not survive to 1.51 years, and only 25 percent live more than 9.5 years.
  • No vulnerability characteristics indicated a long or short life; however, future analyses may want to examine Linux versus other platform types, the similarity of open and closed source code, and exploit class type.
  • For a given stockpile of zero-day vulnerabilities, after a year, approximately 5.7 percent have been publicly discovered and disclosed by another entity.

Rand researchers Ablon and Bogart attempt to interject facts into the debate over stockpiling zero-day vulnerabilities. It a great read, even though I doubt policy decisions over zero-day stockpiling will be fact-driven.

As an advocate of inadvertent or involuntary transparency (is there any other honest kind?), I take heart from the 6.9 year average life expectancy of zero-day exploits.

Researchers should take encouragement from the finding that within a given year, only 5.7 of all zero-days vulnerability discoveries overlap. That is 94.3% of zero-day discoveries are unique. That indicates to me vulnerabilities are left undiscovered every year.

Voluntary transparency, like presidential press conferences, is an opportunity to shape and manipulate your opinions. Zero-day vulnerabilities, on the other hand, can empower honest/involuntary transparency.

Won’t you help?

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