Unpatched Applications Are #1 Cyber Security Risk

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Unpatched client software and vulnerable Internet-facing web sites are the most serious cyber security risks for business. Lesser threats include operating system holes and a rising number of zero-day vulnerabilities, according to a new study.

A leading security education organization, the SANS Institute, has released a new report describing "The Top Cyber Security Risks." It may be read for free (no registration required). Here are its key findings, quoted from the executive summary:

Priority One: Client-side software that remains unpatched

"Waves of targeted email attacks, often called spear phishing, are exploiting client-side vulnerabilities in commonly used programs such as Adobe PDF Reader, QuickTime, Adobe Flash and Microsoft Office.

"This is currently the primary initial infection vector used to compromise computers that have Internet access. Those same client-side vulnerabilities are exploited by attackers when users visit infected web sites. (See Priority Two below for how they compromise the web sites).

"Because the visitors feel safe downloading documents from the trusted sites, they are easily fooled into opening documents and music and video that exploit client-side vulnerabilities.

"Some exploits do not even require the user to open documents. Simply accessing an infected website is all that is needed to compromise the client software. The victims' infected computers are then used to propagate the infection and compromise other internal computers and sensitive servers incorrectly thought to be protected from unauthorized access by external entities.

"In many cases, the ultimate goal of the attacker is to steal data from the target organizations and also to install back doors through which the attackers can return for further exploitation.

"On average, major organizations take at least twice as long to patch client-side vulnerabilities as they take to patch operating system vulnerabilities. In other words the highest priority risk is getting less attention than the lower priority risk."

The report is based on attack data from TippingPoint intrusion prevention systems protecting 6,000 organizations, vulnerability data from 9,000,000 systems compiled by Qualys, and additional analysis and tutorial by the Internet Storm Center and key SANS faculty members.

Also from the summary:

Priority Two: Internet-facing web sites that are vulnerable

"Attacks against web applications constitute more than 60% of the total attack attempts observed on the Internet. These vulnerabilities are being exploited widely to convert trusted web sites into malicious websites serving content that contains client-side exploits.

"Web application vulnerabilities such as SQL injection and Cross-Site Scripting flaws in open-source as well as custom-built applications account for more than 80% of the vulnerabilities being discovered.

"Despite the enormous number of attacks and despite widespread publicity about these vulnerabilities, most web site owners fail to scan effectively for the common flaws and become unwitting tools used by criminals to infect the visitors that trusted those sites to provide a safe web experience."

I don’t normally quote so much information from a source document, but the SANS people are experts and the advice they offer is well-founded. The free report is not long, but includes much more than I can quote here. It is available free from the SANS Web site.

David Coursey tweets as @techinciter and can be contacted via his Web site.

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