Merry HaXmas to you! Each year we mark the 12 Days of HaXmas with 12 blog posts on hacking-related topics and roundups from the year. This year, we're highlighting some of the “gifts” we want to give back to the community. And while these gifts may not come wrapped with a bow, we hope you enjoy them.

This holiday season, eager little hacker girls and boys around the world will be tearing open their new IoT gadgets and geegaws, and set to work on evading tamper evident seals, proxying communications, and reversing firmware, in search of a Haxmas miracle of 0day. But instead of exploiting these newly discovered vulnerabilities, many will instead notice their hearts growing three sizes larger, and wish to disclose these new vulns in a reasonable and coordinated way in order to bring attention to the problem and ultimately see a fix for the discovered issues.

In the spirit of HaXmas, then, I'd like to take a moment to talk directly to the good-hearted hackers out there about how one might go about disclosing vulnerabilities in a way that maximizes the chances that your finding will get the right kind of attention.

Keep It Secret, Keep it Santa

First and foremost, I'd urge any researcher to consider the upsides of keeping your disclosure confidential for the short term. While it might be tempting to tweet a 140-character summary publically to the vendor's alias, dropping this kind of bomb on the social media staff of an electronics company is kind of a jerk move, and only encourages an adversarial relationship from there on out. In the best case, the company most able to fix the issue isn't likely to work with you once you've published, and in the worst, you might trigger a defensive reflex where the vendor refuses to acknowledge the bug at all.

Instead, consider writing a probing email to the company's email aliases of security@, secure@, abuse@, support@, and info@, along the lines of, "Hi, I seem to have found a software vulnerability with your product, who can I talk to?" This is likely to get a human response, and you can figure out from there who to talk to about your fresh new vulnerability.

The Spirit of Giving

You could also go a step further, and check the vendor's website to see if they offer a bug bounty for discovered issues, or even peek in on HackerOne's community-curated directory of security contacts and bug bounties. For example, searching for Rapid7 gives a pointer to our disclosure policies, contact information, and PGP key.

However, be careful when deciding to participate in a bug bounty. While the vast majority of bounty programs out there are well-intentioned, some come with an agreement that you will never, ever, ever, in a million years, ever disclose the bug to anyone else, ever — even if the vendor doesn't deign to acknowledge or fix the issue. This can leave you in a sticky situation, even if you end up getting paid out. If you agree to terms like that, you can limit your options for public disclosure down the line if the fix is non-existent or incomplete.

Because of these kinds of constraints, I tend to avoid bug bounties, and merely offer up the information for free. It's totally okay to ask about a bounty program, of course, but be sure that you're not phrasing your request that can be read as an extortion attempt — that can be taken as an attack, and again, trigger a negative reaction from the vendor.

No Reindeer Games

In the happy case where you establish communications with the vendor, it's best to be as clear and as direct as possible. If you plan to publish your findings on your blog, say so, and offer exactly what and when you plan to publish. Giving vendors deadlines — in a friendly, non-threatening, matter-of-fact way — turns out to be a great motivator for getting your issue prioritized internally there. Be prepared to negotiate around the specifics, of course — you might not know exactly how to fix a bug, and how long that'll take, and the moment you disclose, they probably don't, either.

Most importantly, though, try to avoid over-playing your discovery. Consider what an adversary actually has to do to exploit the bug — maybe they need to be physically close by, or already have an authorized account, or something like that. Being upfront with those details can help frame the risk to other users, and can tamp down irrational fears about the bug.

Finally, try to avoid blaming the vendor too harshly. Bugs happen — it's inherent in the way we write, assemble, and ship software for general purpose computers. Assume the vendor isn't staffed with incompetents and imbeciles, and that they actually do care about protecting their customers. Treating your vendor with respect will engender a pretty typical honey versus vinegar effect, and you're much more likely to see a fix quickly.

Sing it Loud For All to Hear

Assuming you've hit your clearly-stated disclosure deadline, it's time to publish your findings. Again, you're not trying to shame the vendor with your disclosure — you're helping other people make better informed decisions about the security of their own devices, giving other researchers a specific, documented case study of a vulnerability discovered in a shipping product, and teaching the general public about How Security Works. Again, effectively communicating the vulnerability is critical. Avoid generalities, and offer specifics — screenshots, step-by-step instructions on how you found it, and ideally, a Metasploit module to demonstrate the effects of an exploit. Doing this helps move other researchers along in helping them to completely understand your unique findings and perhaps apply your learnings to their own efforts.

Ideally, there's a fix already available and distributed, and if so, you should clearly state that, early on in your disclosure. If there isn't, though, offer up some kind of solution to the problem you've discovered. Nearly always, there is a way to work around the issue through some non-default configuration, or a network-level defense, or something like that. Sometimes, the best advice is to avoid using the product all together, but that tends to be the last course of defense.

Happy HaXmas!

Given the recently enacted DMCA research exemption on consumer devices, I do expect to see an uptick in disclosing issues that center around consumer electronics. This is ultimately a good thing -- when people tinker with their own devices, they are more empowered to make better decisions on how a technology can actually affect their lives. The disclosure process, though, can be almost as challenging as the initial hackery as finding and exploiting vulnerabilities in the first place. You're dealing with emotional people who are often unfamiliar with the norms of security research, and you may well be the first security expert they've talked to. Make the most of your newfound status as a security ambassador, and try to be helpful when delivering your bad news.