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What’s in the SOSS? Podcast #1 – Vincent Danen and the Art of Vulnerability Management

By April 11, 2024Podcast


In this episode, Omkhar talks to Vincent Danen, Vice President of Product Security at Red Hat, responsible for security and compliance activities for all Red Hat products and services. He’s also on the Governing Board of the OpenSSF. Vincent has been involved with open source and software security for over 20 years, leading security teams and participating in open source communities and development.

Conversation Highlights

  • 00:39 – Vincent shares his background in security and responsibilities at Red Hat
  • 03:36 – The importance of maintaining a sense of calm during security incidents
  • 05:18 – Omkhar and Vincent discuss their experiences learning about the infamous Heartbleed Bug
  • 09:05 – Vincent offers advice on how to address vulnerability management and the importance of trusting your vendors
  • 11:34 – Not every threat or vulnerability requires swift and immediate action
  • 12:46 – Pitfalls organizations should avoid in vulnerability management
  • 15:40 – Vincent answers Omkhar’s “rapid-fire” questions: mild vs. spicy food, text editor or choice and tabs vs. spaces
  • 16:32 – Advice Vincent would give to aspiring security professionals and the importance of being open-minded


Vincent Danen soundbite (00:01)
I want somebody to come out and create a bug scanner. Go tell me all the bugs that are in the software that I have. Not the security issues but the bugs. Because that list is gonna be way longer. And I guarantee you that some of those bugs are far more impactful for you as a user than some of these security issues.

Omkhar Arasaratnam (00:17)
Welcome to What’s in the SOSS? I’m your host Omkar Arasaratnam and with me this week we have fellow Canadian Vincent Danen. Vincent, how are you doing my friend?

Vincent Danen (00:28)
Good, Omkhar. How are you?

Omkhar Arasaratnam (00:29)
I’m doing just dandy. So for our audience, I would love to do a quick intro. Why don’t you give them your name, title and what you do?

Vincent Danen (00:39)
Sure, so Vincent Danen, Vice President of Product Security at Red Hat. I just actually celebrated 15 years at Red Hat a month ago.

Omkhar Arasaratnam (00:47)

Vincent Danen (00:49)
Thank you. Prior to that, I was at Mandriva for those long-time listeners who know the history of Linux. I was doing security work for them for about eight years. So I’ve been knee-deep in open source security for over 20 years now, and it just makes me feel old.

Omkhar Arasaratnam (01:04)
You’re, you’re an O.G. as the kids say, and let me let me drop some street cred: You know, I used to be a Red Hat certified engineer in Red Hat 7.2 And I didn’t say RHEL, I said Red Hat 7.2 because I’m an old guy, too.

Vincent Danen (01:20)
Yeah, well you got some street cred for sure.

Omkhar Arasaratnam (01:23 )
That’s a really cool title. Sounds incredibly important. Can you give our listeners a bit of an overview as to, you know, being the person in charge of product security? What does that mean at Red Hat?

Vincent Danen (01:35)
Yeah, I mean, product security at Red Hat has, I mean, that name kind of gives it away, right? It is about the security of our products. Our remit is effectively all of the proactive/reactive security concerns around our portfolio of products. So if you think about it, that, you’d mentioned RHEL, that’s one. OpenShift, Ansible, Middleware, EAP, a ton of products. And of course, we like to support these things for a very long time. So multiple versions of the same product. So effectively, my team ingresses a number of vulnerability information. So new CVEs are discovered, either they’re reported directly to us, either under embargo or not.

We get information from CVE, other reporters. You’re familiar with the Linux distros mailing list. So we get information that way as well. So we’re kind of ingressing all of these vulnerabilities. We triage them and determine their effectiveness or effectedness to our products. And then we kind of go through the whole process of rating the vulnerability in terms of its severity, how it’s impacted in the products.

And then kind of just follow that through with engineering who are going to fix these things and test them, release them out to our customers. We provide a ton of information about CVEs because customers really like to know, “ What does this thing do and should I be sweating or is this okay?” We also focus a lot on, say, our internal build pipelines, how we curate the open source, how we interact with upstream. We do a lot on the compliance front as well. So it’s like a very robust view of security, kind of from front to end for all of our products.

Omkhar Arasaratnam (03:14)
That sounds like an incredibly broad scope. And at some point, you have to tell the listeners when you have time to sleep It sounds like you’re on all the time, like most of us are in cybersecurity.

Vincent Danen (03:25)
Yes, although I do sleep and actually sleep pretty good. One of the benefits of having a fantastic team to work with. So I don’t have to worry about everything. I have a great team to work with,  and they do a lot of the heavy lifting.

Omkhar Arasaratnam (03:36)
That’s wonderful to hear. And I certainly get that. Back in the day, when I first started in cybersecurity, incident response was one of the things that I had. And an old manager of mine often said, whenever we have to deal with an incident, there should be a sense of urgency, but it shouldn’t be panic. And what I’m hearing from you is you’ve got a team that’s really set up to handle that sense of urgency properly without the panic that could be a negative force.

Vincent Danen (04:03 )
It’s actually interesting that you mentioned that because one of our goals is to, particularly with a lot of these named vulnerabilities, so those have been a phenomenon for at least the last dozen years. Because Heartbleed actually just celebrated a 10-year anniversary, I think it was earlier this week or last week.

Omkhar Arasaratnam (04:19)
Yeah, I didn’t get a cake, but I remember.

Vincent Danen (04:22)
I didn’t get a cake either, but I do remember when it happened. I was hip-deep in that as well. But one of our goals is to maybe quell that sense of panic that our customers or other people in the industry have. So we really try to take a look at these vulnerabilities from the perspective of what does it actually do and do I need to be worried? And then convey that information as clearly and concisely as possible to our customers so that we’re not seeing undue panic.

I mean, there are certain things we should absolutely be panicking about, right? Like, these are things where if we produce a patch, I mean, we want you to apply it as quickly as possible. There is that sense of urgency. But when we’re looking and analyzing these things, I kind of think of it more akin to a firefighter. If you’re in the middle of a blaze trying to put that fire out and you’re panicking, you’re not going to be very effective, right? So we want to be as kind of calm, cool, collected, measured, as clear as possible.

Omkhar Arasaratnam (05:18)
The analog that I use often to describe that same concept: A neighbor of mine is a paramedic, and one of the things he pointed out to me was you’ll notice that paramedics never run at an accident scene. And, It’s not, I mean they certainly move with urgency, but they don’t run because they don’t want to cause more harm through acting in a non-stoic and measured manner by kind of running, running into the proverbial scene. Of course, we see that on TV all the time, but you know, TV is not reality.

I do want to come back to the Heartbleed thing for just a moment. It’s said that when you look back on your life, there are certain key moments that everybody remembers. And for those that were maybe the generation prior to us, it was the JFK assassination. For our generation to betray our age to the viewers — or the listeners — it was probably the Challenger explosion. It was probably, you know, 9/11.

I have that indelible kind of memory of Heartbleed, and the reason I have that indelible memory is I have very poor discipline when it comes to turning off work. And I wish I had better discipline. My wife also wishes I had better discipline. But ten years ago, I had promised my wife and kids were going to go to Hawaii for the first time. We were in Maui, and this was still back in the days when everybody had a Blackberry. I left my Blackberry at home turned off, and we were on the beach in Maui, and I came back in and I turned on the TV. And I was like, “Oh boy, what a day to be disconnected from work.” What was, what was your experience?

Vincent Danen (07:04)
First, I’ll say you were one of the lucky ones to be disconnected from it.

Omkhar Arasaratnam (07:07)
By total coincidence.

Vincent Danen (07:10)
Yeah, yeah. No, the thing that sticks out for me the most, there’s two. One is that our Red Hat Summit was about a month later, and that was all anyone wanted to talk about was Heartbleed. And that’s not what I was there for. Right, so that was interesting and that kind of sticks in my head. The other one was I actually remember my mother phoning me, and she’s completely, sorry Mom if you hear this, completely computer illiterate. Right? I have to go to her house to help her fix the remote because she did something to the TV, and it’s literally one button, right? But she phones me, and she’s like, “Hey, I heard about this computer thing on the radio.”

And I was like, “What are you even talking about?” A, you picked up on this,  and you knew it was somehow relevant to me, which was shocking. And then secondly, it was like, it was on the radio. And to that point, I had never heard, like the local news, I had never heard of a security issue in software ever getting that kind of airplay. This thing was really noisy.

Omkhar Arasaratnam (08:05)
My family non-technical analog is my dad, and again, apologies to my dad if he hears this. Like, my dad wants to send me articles about, you know, the latest scam that’s out there and, you know, don’t get title scammed out of your house and stuff like that and the odd meme and not do much else. But when dad starts sending me stuff that’s like, “Hey, do you know about this?” Yeah, then then it really puts things in perspective as to how this affects society.

So I think the, I mean, the conclusion in all this that I’m drawing to is vulnerability management is hard to do properly. And being able to kind of filter signal and noise and get down to something that’s actually actionable shouldn’t be based on whether Vincent’s mom hears it on the radio or Omkhar’s dad finds it on a news website. What are some key considerations for our listeners? What should they be thinking about when they start thinking about vulnerability management?

Vincent Danen (09:05)
That’s a great question because it’s something I think about a lot. I actually talk about it a lot as well. The caveat here being I work for Red Hat, and so this is my day job, right? And so I deal with a lot of customers who have a lot of questions, particularly about this topic, right? So the first thing that I would say is you have to know your vendor before you pick them. There’s a fundamental trust factor that comes into play with your vendor. And I’m not even talking just from a security perspective, right? Like, you have to be able to trust the software that you’re using or the vendor who puts it out, right? And there’s a couple of reasons for that.

Vendors typically will assess a vulnerability themselves, right? I know we have things like NVD and OSV and, like, other kind of CVE aggregation systems, but a vendor typically rates the severity of a vulnerability in terms of their product. I’ve heard in the past, I haven’t heard it recently, but somebody actually accused me of lowballing a vulnerability because I didn’t want to have to fix it. I was like, well, that’s really weird. You know, like, you trust me to run your workloads, to do all this work that you’re doing, to build value in your business, right? To run your platforms and whatnot. But you’re not going to trust me when I say that this vulnerability doesn’t matter for these particular reasons, right? Which is a little weird. You trust me for one thing, but you don’t trust me for the other.

Omkhar Arasaratnam (10:20)
It is strange.

Vincent Danen (10:22)
So, I mean, there is a trust relationship with your vendor, and I think that extends to when they say something is impactful or not, you have to kind of believe that, right? And it’s really important because I was looking at a, I think, it was a GRUB vulnerability a couple months ago.

Omkhar Arasaratnam (10:39)
The Bootloader?

Vincent Danen (10:41)
Yeah, the Bootloader. And when I was looking at the CVSS ratings for that GRUB vulnerability, we had it rated one way. I think Debian had it rated a different way. SUSE rated it the same. F5 rated it like really low, right? In the context of their environment and how accessible it is in their devices. Right? So I mean, they rated it in the context of the way that they use it and kind of the environment around it. And that’s typically what vendors do. So I wouldn’t sit there and say, “Yeah, go look at, you know, how Debian writes stuff, and that’s exactly how it works for Red Hat.” Because it’s not true.

Omkhar Arasaratnam (11:16)
And presumably there may be some, I mean, it could be mitigations in your build chain that you include. It could be, to your point, is this an appliance? And is this something that’s a materially accessible vulnerability remotely or something of that nature based on your usage?

Vincent Danen (11:34)
A hundred percent. RHEL being an operating system, and you can do whatever you want with it, we don’t know. OpenShift is more of an appliance platform and it’s built a very specific way, and there’s a limited amount that you can do with it, right? In terms of how you’re messing around with the different components. The same component might be present in both. In RHEL, I can use it however I want. I can use it as part of my own application, I can use it on the system, whatever. In OpenShift, that might be one very specific piece of plumbing with one very specific use that’s either the vulnerable code isn’t being used, or there’s literally no way for a user or an attacker to access it. So the fact that the vulnerability is there, I mean, okay, yes, technically it’s there, but in any possible use of OpenShift, it’s not going to be material. You’d have to break OpenShift really, really bad in order to even access it, and then you’ve got bigger problems.

Omkhar Arasaratnam (12:30)
Absolutely. So the notion of reachability or exploitability is obviously key and a huge part of how people should be triaging these vulnerabilities as they do come up. What are some other pitfalls that people should avoid in vulnerability management?

Vincent Danen (12:46)
Well, I think one of them is just the notion that, you know, as we were discussing here, that every vulnerability matters, right? Most of them don’t. So I kind of look at it as like, don’t sweat the fact that your scanner is showing up a bunch of low or medium or moderate vulnerabilities. That’s probably fine, right?

I would worry more about the critical and important or high vulnerabilities that it’s showing because those are the ones that are more likely to be exploited and are more likely to be damaging if they are. Interestingly enough, Red Hat produces a risk report on an annual basis. Last year, out of the, what is it, about 1,600 vulnerabilities that impacted us, only 1.2 % were actually known to be exploited. The prior year was at 0.4%. Now the majority of those are in those critical and important vulnerabilities. And there was like a handful in the moderate levels, like, I think three.

So I think about it like about a thousand moderates and two of them are exported. Like, why are we panicking over the other 998 that are effectively immaterial and not actually being used? Now, a little plug for Red Hat here is when we find out that something is being exploited, that kind of raises it to our level of, “OK, this is actually an issue.” And if we hadn’t fixed it already, we’re going to fix it. So we’ll always proactively do the criticals and the importance because it could be any one of those that could be exploited, cause damage.

But we’re not worrying about all of them because, I mean, frankly, I actually had this thought the other day. Because I hear a lot about these vulnerability scanners, right? And they’re very noisy. Sometimes they’re not very accurate and they show a lot of things. I want somebody to come out and create a bug scanner. Go tell me all the bugs that are in the software that I have. Like not the security issues, but the bugs. Because that list is gonna be way longer. And I guarantee you that some of those bugs are far more impactful for you as a user than some of these security issues, particularly the low vulnerabilities.

Omkhar Arasaratnam (14:44)
Absolutely. I mean security properties of a program are essentially an aspect of quality. And looking at them holistically in terms of all quality issues is an interesting view. One of the ways  I’ve described this in the past is security is like this infinite problem space, and if you don’t have a way of reasoning over what’s actually important, you’re going to be chasing down rabbit holes forever and a day. And some of the work that we’re actually doing in the Security Toolbelt group within the OpenSSF is around doing these kind of threat modeling and risk assessments to really pick up on, “Look, OK, in the fullness of time, we should address all the things, but what do I need to address now? And how do I need to address it?”

Vincent with all that said, I think we’re going to jump into the rapid-fire round. Are you ready?

Vincent Danen (15:39)

Omkhar Arasaratnam (15:40)
All right. Spicy or mild food?

Vincent Danen (15:44)
Mild. Although my mother likes spicy food, and I think that turned me off as a youngster. I’m starting to get back into handling a little bit of heat.

Omkhar Arasaratnam (15:51)
I’d like to be the Sherpa on your journey.

Vincent Danen (15:54)
Thank you.

Omkhar Arasaratnam (15:55)
Text editor of choice: Vim, VS Code, Emacs or other. That’s an option as well.

Vincent Danen (16:01)

Omkhar Arasaratnam (16:03)
Yes! All right. You know, you, you slipped on the spicy food. You redeemed yourself on the text editor. This next one is incredibly influential: tabs or spaces?

Vincent Danen (16:14)
I’m a spaces guy.

Omkhar Arasaratnam (16:15)
Yes! Alright. We, we will continue to be good friends, Vincent

Vincent Danen (16:20)

Omkhar Arasaratnam (16:21)
In closing out, thank you so much for all your great advice, but for somebody that’s entering our field today, what would you tell them? What sage wisdom would you impart?

Vincent Danen (16:32)
Probably two things. One, as you and I are both aware, I’ve been here for a long time. It’s very easy to be burnt out and stressed out and everything else by this work. Not to take anything away from the fantastic firefighters and paramedics and everything else, but it feels a lot like first responder-type work. So I say, take care of yourself first. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’re no good to anybody else. And we’re here to be good to other people, right?

And then the other part I would say that I think is actually really, really important is for people to stay curious. Right? If we think about this XZ Backdoor that we just had recently, it was curiosity that found it. I mean, at the end of the day, that’s what it was. This thing is a little bit weird, and I don’t understand it, so I’m gonna go digging. We have to be curious. I don’t really care how you build it, I wanna know how you break it. Right? And I think that’s a very important mindset for security people, so being curious is super important.

Omkhar Arasaratnam (17:25)
That’s some great advice. Last but not least, what’s your call to action for our audience?

Vincent Danen (17:32)
Be open-minded. Find a good reputable vendor to enable you on your — I hate the term digital transformation — but your digital transformation journey, right? Find a reputable vendor to work with there and then trust them, right? There’s a lot of great software vendors out there, a lot of great open source communities, projects, et cetera, who are desperately doing the right thing for those around them. And I think that that should inspire and has earned trust. And we have to trust the people we work with.

Omkhar Arasaratnam (18:02)
Vincent, thank you so much for being generous with your time. Be safe, and thank you so much for coming on What’s in the SOSS?

Vincent Danen (18:10)
Thanks, Omkhar.

Announcer (18:11)
Thank you for listening to What’s in the SOSS? An OpenSSF podcast. Be sure to subscribe to our series of conversations on Spotify, Apple, Amazon or wherever you get your podcasts. And to keep up to date on the Open Source Security Foundation community, join us online at We’ll talk to you next time on What’s in the SOSS?