Hackers Hitting Popular Apps

At a London press conference on Tuesday, the SANS Institute and government representatives from the United States and the United Kingdom plan to release a report on the 20 most critical Internet security vulnerabilities for 2005.

The computer security research organization's report reveals that cybercriminals have shifted targets. Over the past five years, most hackers went after operating systems and Internet services like Web servers and E-mail servers. In 2005, they took aim at software applications.

The applications under fire span a variety of operating systems. They include enterprise backup software, anti-virus software, PHP applications, database software, peer-to-peer file sharing software, DNS software, media player software, IM software, and Internet browsers.

The second major finding of the report is that vulnerabilities in network operating systems such Cisco's Internetwork Operating System (IOS), which powers most of the routers and switches on the Internet, represent a significant threat.

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"The bottom line is that security has been set back nearly six years in the past 18 months," Alan Paller, director of research for the SANS Institute, says in an E-mail. "Six years ago, attackers targeted operating systems and the operating system vendors didn't do automated patching. In the intervening years, automated patching protected everyone from government to grandma. Now the attackers are targeting popular applications, and the vendors of those applications do not do automated patching."

Security experts credit Microsoft's efforts to improve its software with forcing hackers to look for lower hanging fruit. "Part of the reason we're seeing a more of the attacks go against things other than the Windows operating system is that the Windows operating system has gotten better," says John Pescatore, VP and research fellow for information security at market research firm Gartner.

Gerhard Eschelbeck, chief technolgy officer and VP of engineering of vulnerability-management company Qualys Inc. says some credit goes to Microsoft and some goes to overall improvements in patching behavior. Patching as soon as possible is critical: As Eschelbeck notes in "The Laws Of Vulnerabilities," a study released by Qualys in November, 80% of exploits are available within the first 19 days after the disclosure of a critical vulnerability.

Patching has its limits, however. Ira Winkler, author of "Spies Among Us" and global security strategist with CSC Consulting, says attacks against vulnerabilities that can be repaired by patching represent less than a third of hacking attacks. "When the Department of Defense did studies on the matter, they found that actually these attacks account for only 30% of hacking," he says. "Attacks against configurations, essentially poor system hardening, account for 70% of successful attacks. And that means that automated patching probably won't help."

The vulnerability of backup systems, in particular, puts businesses at great risk because backup software provides one-stop shopping for critical corporate data. As the SANS report points out, "An attacker can leverage these flaws for an enterprise-wide compromise and obtain access to the sensitive backed-up data."

And criminals are doing just that: Exploits for many of these vulnerabilities have been publicly posted and are in use today.

What's significant about the SANS report, says Pescatore, "is that the most dangerous attacks are the targeted attacks that are going after specific vulnerabilities at specific companies."

Mark Richmond, network systems engineer for U.S. District Court, Eastern District of California, says it's widely recognized that cybercrime has been become increasingly professional. "The coordination of attacks over the last few years seems to be increasing," he says. "There are cooperative arrangements between various groups, formal or information, that seem to be facilitating the use of networks and computers for criminal activities." Nonetheless, Richmond feels he has the situation in hand. "As part of the federal government and the judiciary, security is and always has been a very, very important concern, both physical security and data security," he says. "We limit access to our systems beyond the point of inconvenience. We use a private network. We're gated to the Internet in very narrow gates that are very tightly controlled, partly because of security concerns and partly to protect the performance that we need to get out work done."

Despite such attention to security, targeted attacks can test even the most security-conscious organizations. In mid-July, the Department of Energy Computer Incident Advisory Capability issued a warning about a rise in targeted attacks. "We are seeing more targeted attacks both within and outside of the DOE," the bulletin says

Recent revelations about Titan Rain demonstrate that sometimes targeted attacks are successful. "Titan Rain is the code term that the U.S. government has assigned a series of coordinated attacks against a variety of government and commercial systems that contain, at the very least, sensitive data," explains Winkler. He notes that these attacks--conducted though Chinese Web sites and believed by some U.S. officials to be directed by the Chinese government--have been going on for years, and have been escalating recently.

According to Winkler, data on satellite systems, space exploration, and other export controlled technologies have been taken in these attacks. But it's not just companies with advanced technology being targeted. Pretty much any organization with sensitive personal or financial data represents a potential target. Pescatore points to recent reports of credit card identity theft, some of which have involved the installation of a rootkit--the hacking tool that recently got Sony sued--on a specific server in order to harvest databases and send them to criminals. "There's just so much more financially motivated attacking going on," he says. "People are stealing these credit card databases not just to have fun and say, 'Look what I did.' They're stealing them because they can sell the credit card numbers."

The success of hacking attacks is having a dramatic impact on consumers. Two recent studies, one by the Pew Internet and American Life Project and the other by Consumer Reports WebWatch, find that over 90% Internet users say they have adjusted their online behavior out of fear of cyber crime. The Consumer Reports WebWatch study indicates that fully a quarter of U.S.-based Internet users have stopped buying things online.

Pescatore and others note that fear of online victimization has curtailed the growth of electronic bill presentment and payment, which offer companies significant savings over paper payment processing.

Because targeted attacks don't typically get reported--unless required by a law like California Security Breach Information Act (SB-1386)- there's a chance tight-lipped companies may staunch the hemorrhage of online shoppers with silence, under the theory that what they don't know won't deter them.

But silence also makes it harder for security professionals to make the case for increased investment in security. "[Targeted attacks] don't generate press, so they don't encourage other companies to prepare for them," Pescatore explains.

In an E-mail, Howard Schmidt, a noted cybersecurity expert and former CSO for both Microsoft and eBay, says the SANS report highlights the utility of hardening the presentation and application layers as a means to reduce cyber security events. "The first stop on the way to fix this is through secure coding and better QA of development processes, penetration testing on compiled code as well as vulnerability testing of integrated deployed applications via Web front ends," he says.

Pescatore says that companies in general are better prepared to deal with security issues than they were a few years ago. But criminal hackers are better prepared too. "The good news is the termites are no longer eating the bottom floor of your house," he says. "The bad news is they're eating top floor."