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DHS Wants Every Agency to Have a Vulnerability Disclosure Program

A draft directive would require civilian agencies to find and fix network vulnerabilities spotted by public security researchers.

The Homeland Security Department on Wednesday released a draft of a binding operational directive that would require every federal agency to create a vulnerability disclosure policy.

Under the measure, each civilian agency would need to create a formal process for security researchers to share vulnerabilities they uncover within the organization’s public-facing websites and other IT infrastructure. Agencies must also develop a system for reporting and closing the security gaps that are uncovered through the program.

Despite the growing popularity of public cyber initiatives like bug bounties, security researchers often find themselves in a legal gray area when reporting cyber weaknesses to the government. By creating vulnerability disclosure policies, agencies can set clear guardrails on legal hacking.

“A [vulnerability disclosure policy] allows people who have ‘seen something’ to ‘say something’ to those who can fix it,” Jeanette Manfra, assistant director for cybersecurity within the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said in a blog post. “It makes clear that an agency welcomes and authorizes good faith security research on specific, internet-accessible systems.”

The BOD would bring the rest of the government up to speed with the Pentagon and the General Services Administration’s tech office, which have already established vulnerability disclosure programs. DHS is also in the process of finalizing its own policy.

CISA will accept public feedback on the proposed directive through Dec. 27.

Specifically, the measure would give agencies six months to create a web-based system for receiving “unsolicited” warnings about potential vulnerabilities. They must also develop and publish a vulnerability disclosure policy, outlining the systems and hacking methods that are authorized under the program and describing the process for submitting vulnerabilities. 

The directive would require agencies to consistently add new systems to the program over time. Within two years, “all internet-accessible systems and services” must be in scope of the policy, according to the measure. Every system launched after the directive is issued must automatically be considered in scope.

Agencies would also need to set procedures for handling submissions and report both specific vulnerabilities and program metrics directly to CISA.

While the directive gives agencies some latitude in the metrics and policies around their own policies, the measure could ultimately lay the foundation for a standardized, government-wide vulnerability disclosure program, Manfra said. 

“We think a single, universal vulnerability disclosure policy for the executive branch is a good goal ... but we expect that goal to be an unrealistic starting place for most agencies,” she said. “The directive supports a phased approach to widening scope, allowing each enterprise–comprised of the humans and their organizational tools, norms, and culture–to level up incrementally.”