Raising the Bar: The Urgent Need for Enhanced Firmware Security and Transparency

Firmware forms the foundation of all our security investments. Unfortunately, firmware source code is rarely available to the public and as a result is one of the least understood (and least secure) classes of software we depend on today.

Despite this, the hardware industry is known for its lack of transparency and inadequate planning for the entire lifecycle of their products. This lack of planning and transparency makes it hard to defend against and respond to both known and unknown vulnerabilities, especially when the industry often knows about issues for ages, but customers do not.

In today’s world, automation allows builders, defenders and attackers to automatically identify zero-day vulnerabilities with just a binary it has become increasingly important that embargo times for vulnerabilities are as short as possible, allowing for quick defense and, when possible, remediation.

Despite this, organizations like the UEFI Forum are proposing extended disclosure periods, suggesting a 300-day wait from initial reporting to the vendor before notifying customers. During this year-long waiting period, customers are exposed to risks without defense options. The longer the period, the more likely it is that automation enables the attacker to identify the issue in parallel, giving them a safe period to exploit the zero-day without detection.

Simply put, this duration seems way too long, considering the ease of proactively catching issues now — especially given the industry’s overall underinvestment in product security. It would be a different case if these organizations had a history of handling issues effectively, but the reality is far from this. Their apparent neglect, demonstrated by unreliable update mechanisms, continuously shipping models with the same issues that have been resolved in other models, and the frequency of industry-wide issues highlight this reality. More often than any other industry, we see hardware manufacturers often reintroducing previously resolved security issues due to poor security practices and poor management of their complex supply chains. This reality makes this position highly irresponsible. We must do better. Concealing vulnerabilities like this is no longer viable — if it ever was.

It is possible we will see changes as a result of shifts in software liability and regulatory changes, like those in White House Executive Order 1428. This order demands that organizations responsible for “critical software” comply with long-standing best practices. Although “critical software” lacks a clear definition, firmware’s role in underpinning all security investments suggests it likely falls into this category. This executive order starts with basics like publishing known dependencies, which is useful but insufficient, especially in this segment given the prevalence of shared reference code and static dependencies that are not expressed as a library dependencies. This language includes adoption of formal vulnerability management practices, bug bounties, and more. This and the EU Cyber Resilience Act are all efforts to get these and other vendors to align with long-time security best practices, like those captured by efforts like the NIST’s vulnerability management recommendations.

This landscape will likely shift once we see enforcement cases emerge, but customers must insist on higher standards from hardware manufacturers and their suppliers, or nothing will change in the near term.

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