Oracle Attacks PCI Council, Calls Council’s Decision “Extraordinarily Bad, Short-Sighted”

Written by Evan Schuman
April 2nd, 2012

Oracle took an unusual—and an unusually public—stance against the PCI Council this week, arguing that the Council is gathering too much information about data breaches. Oracle’s concern? The more data that is gathered, the easier it will be to leak.

The argument was launched as a blog post on Oracle’s site under the name of Mary Ann Davidson, Oracle’s Chief Security Officer, on March 28. The source of irritation is a 2010 change to the PCI Payment Application Vendor Release Agreement (VRA).

It’s a change, Davidson wrote, that “imposed new obligations on vendors that are extraordinary and extraordinarily bad, short-sighted and unworkable. Specifically, PCI requires vendors to disclose—dare we say ‘tell all?’—to PCI any known security vulnerabilities and associated security breaches involving Validated Payment Applications (VPA). Think about the impact of that. PCI is asking a vendor to disclose specific details of security vulnerabilities, including exploit information or technical details of the vulnerability and whether or not there is any mitigation available, as in a patch.”

Davidson continued, saying that PCI retains “the right to blab about any and all of the above—specifically, to distribute all the gory details of what is disclosed—to the PCI SSC, qualified security assessors (QSAs), and any affiliate or agent or adviser of those entities, who are in turn permitted to share it with their respective affiliates, agents, employees, contractors, merchants, processors, service providers and other business partners. This assorted crew can’t be more than, oh, hundreds of thousands of entities. Does anybody believe that several hundred thousand people can keep a secret? Or that several hundred thousand people are all equally trustworthy? Or that not one of the people getting all that information would blab vulnerability details to a bad guy, even by accident? Or be a bad guy who uses the information to break into systems? Common sense tells us that telling lots of people a secret is guaranteed to unsecret the secret.”

She added: “Why would anybody release a bunch of highly technical exploit information to a cast of thousands, whose only ‘vetting’ is that they are members of a PCI consortium?”

Oracle’s case is well articulated, but there is another side to this. Not every hole is patched right away. Do not retailers have the right to know not only that a hole exists but enough details so they can make decisions? Maybe that app needs to be halted immediately, or maybe avoiding certain features or situations will provide adequate temporary protection? Could the hole’s details solve a tech mystery a chain had, where a particular problem kept cropping up?

Not only did the Oracle post say that divulging widely could help the bad guys, but it questioned whether the details would meaningfully even help the good guys.

“Notably, being provided details of a vulnerability (without a patch) is of little or no use to companies running the affected application. Few users have the technological sophistication to create a workaround and, even if they do, most workarounds break some other functionality in the application or surrounding environment,” Davidson said. “Also, given the differences among corporate implementations of any application, it is highly unlikely that a single workaround is going to work for all corporate users. So until a patch is developed by the vendor, users remain at risk of exploit: even more so if the details of vulnerability have been widely shared. Sharing that information widely before a patch is available, therefore, does not help users, and instead helps only those wanting to exploit known security bugs.”


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