Adding bugs to build better computer bug-finder

, 12:59 PM IST

Washington : A team of researchers has come up with a new strategy that can help train bug-finding tools to catch more vulnerabilities.

Researchers at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering, in collaboration with the MIT Lincoln Laboratory and Northeastern University, are taking an unorthodox approach: Instead of finding and remediating bugs, they’re adding them by the hundreds of thousands.

Brendan Dolan-Gavitt is a co-creator of LAVA, or Large-Scale Automated Vulnerability Addition, a technique of intentionally adding vulnerabilities to a program’s source code to test the limits of bug-finding tools and ultimately help developers improve them. In experiments using LAVA, they showed that many popular bug finders detect merely 2 percent of vulnerabilities.

Dolan-Gavitt explained that the efficacy of bug-finding programs is based on two metrics: the false positive rate and the false negative rate, both of which are notoriously difficult to calculate. It is not unusual for a program to detect a bug that later proves not to be there – a false positive, and to miss vulnerabilities that are actually present – a false negative. Without knowing the total number of real bugs, there is no way to gauge how well these tools perform.

“The only way to evaluate a bug finder is to control the number of bugs in a program, which is exactly what we do with LAVA,” said Dolan-Gavitt. The automated system inserts known quantities of novel vulnerabilities that are synthetic yet possess many of the same attributes as computer bugs in the wild.

Dolan-Gavitt and his colleagues dodged the typical five-figure price tag for manual, custom-designed vulnerabilities and instead created an automated system that makes judicious edits in real programs’ source code.

The result: hundreds of thousands of unstudied, highly realistic vulnerabilities that are inexpensive, span the execution lifetime of a program, are embedded in normal control and data flow, and manifest only for a small fraction of inputs lest they shut the entire program down. The researchers had to create novel bugs, and in significant numbers, in order to have a large enough body to study the strengths and shortcomings of bug-finding software. Previously identified vulnerabilities would easily trip current bug finders, skewing the results.

The team tested existing bug-finding software and found that just 2 percent of bugs created by LAVA were detected. Dolan-Gavitt explained that automated bug identification is an extremely complex task that developers are constantly improving. The researchers will share their results to assist these efforts.

The research was presented at the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy and was published in the conference proceedings. (ANI)