Is Oracle Downplaying Security Vulnerabilities?

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As Oracle prepares to kick off its OpenWorld conference in San Francisco this week, the Redwood Shores, Calif.-based vendor is facing questions over the threat ratings it published for the 101 software vulnerabilities fixed last week in its quarterly patch release.

For the first time, Oracle rated the severity of the threats using the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS), a vendor-neutral 10-point threat rating scale that's designed to replace proprietary scoring systems and clarify the true impact of vulnerabilities. Cisco Systems, Qualys, Nessus and Skype are among the early adopters of CVSS.

By switching to the new system, Oracle said it was responding to customers who've been asking for clearer and more detailed information in the patch releases. Oracle also began indicating whether a vulnerability can be exploited remotely, whether authentication is required, and how difficult it is to exploit. Despite the move, security experts who Oracle credited with discovering the vulnerabilities say the CVSS scores the vendor assigned to the flaws are way too low.

"I have no doubt that Oracle is downplaying the seriousness of the vulnerabilities," said Esteban Martinez Fayo, a security researcher with New York-based vendor Application Security.

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David Litchfield, managing director of U.K.-based Next Generation Security Software, says several of the 22 vulnerabilities in Oracle's Database productsmost of which address SQL injection or buffer overflow issuesshould have been given higher scores.

For example, Oracle rated a flaw in the SDO_3GL component of Oracle Database as 1.4 on a 10-point scale, and also indicated that a successful exploit of the vulnerability wouldn't compromise confidential data or affect the integrity of the database, according to Litchfield.

"This is nonsense," Litchfield said. "If an attacker can run arbitrary code as the Oracle user, an attacker can do whatever they want."

What's more, if the Oracle Database Server is connected to an Oracle Application Server or the Oracle HTTP Server, then many of the vulnerabilities would be exploitable without a user ID and password, which would bump up the CVSS score, Litchfield added.

Oracle also patched 13 remotely exploitable holes in its Application Server software, the highest of which the vendor rated as 4.7 out of 10. However, a closer examination of the flaws suggest that many of the ratings should be in the 8.0 range, said Caleb Sima, CTO of SPI Dynamics, an Atlanta-based security vendor that also reported bugs to Oracle. "The problem is, Oracle didn't give enough details [for third parties] to be able to say exactly what the score should be," Sima said.

Oracle calculated CVSS scores for the 101 vulnerabilities in a range from 0.8 to 7.0 on a 10-point scale, but only rated five of the vulnerabilities higher than 5.0. However, other vendors that publish ratings considered the issues more serious, with Secunia giving the vulnerabilities a blanket rating of "highly critical," or 4 on a 5-point scale, and Symantec's Deepsight Threat Management service assigning them an aggregate score of 8.8 out of 10.

Oracle did not respond to multiple phone calls and e-mails requesting comment.

The main challenge of relying on CVSS scores is that the severity rating of a particular vulnerability will be different depending on the organization and how it leverages the technology that's affected, Sima said.

"You really need an independent standards body that scores vulnerabilities in a way that's not defined by the people who are going to sell or use the technology," Sima said.

There still is a bit of gaming that can happen with CVSS because the parameters behind the scores are open to interpretation, and it's possible for vendors to skew scores to cover up the seriousness of threats, said Steven Reese, security practice manager at Nexus Integration Services, Valencia, Calif.

"My fear is that if companies realize they can manipulate CVSS numbers, it will become more widely adopted sooner because it almost gives companies an 'out,' " said Reese. Oracle is making a concerted effort to improve its security reputation and move away from its "Unbreakable" marketing campaign, in which the vendor claimed its Oracle9i database was impervious to attackers, according to Rich Mogull, research vice president of information security and risk at Gartner.

Publishing scores in CVSS could help Oracle achieve this goalas long as the scores are accurate, Mogull said. "However, if they're underrating their vulnerabilities and taking positions that are indefensible, that's going to come back to haunt them later," Mogull said.