The Importance of Accounting for Real-World Labelling When Predicting Software Vulnerabilities

ACM Joint European Software Engineering Conference and Symposium on the Foundations of Software Engineering (ESEC/FSE)


Previous work on vulnerability prediction assume that predictive models are trained with respect to perfect labelling information (includes labels from future, as yet undiscovered vulnerabilities). In this paper we present results from a comprehensive empirical study of 1,898 real-world vulnerabilities reported in 74 releases of three security-critical open source systems (Linux Kernel, OpenSSL and Wiresark). Our study investigates the effectiveness of three previously proposed vulnerability prediction approaches, in two settings: with and without the unrealistic labelling assumption. The results reveal that the unrealistic labelling assumption can profoundly mislead the scientific conclusions drawn; suggesting highly effective and deployable prediction results vanish when we fully account for realistically available labelling in the experimental methodology. More precisely, MCC mean values of predictive effectiveness drop from 0.77, 0.65 and 0.43 to 0.08, 0.22, 0.10 for Linux Kernel, OpenSSL and Wiresark, respectively. Similar results are also obtained for precision, recall and other assessments of predictive efficacy. The community therefore needs to upgrade experimental and empirical methodology for vulnerability prediction evaluation and development to ensure robust and actionable scientific findings.

Won ACM SIGSOFT Distinguished Paper Award

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