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9/14/2009
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Top Cyber Security Risks Revealed

A report issued by The SANS Institute finds enterprise security efforts focused on fixing low-priority flaws at the expense of serious application vulnerabilities.

More than half of all cyber attacks hit two key areas: unpatched client-side software and Web applications.

These findings, along with several others, come from a report titled "The Top Cyber Security Risks," which was compiled by The SANS Institute. The report is based on intrusion data from 6000 companies and government agencies using TippingPoint security hardware and on malware data from millions of PCs monitored by Qualys.

The report, to be released on Tuesday, observes that major organizations typically take twice as long to patch application vulnerabilities as operating system vulnerabilities, despite the lower number of attacks on operating system vulnerabilities.

"In other words the highest priority risk is getting less attention than the lower priority risk," the report states.

More than 60% of attack attempts on the Internet target Web applications, the report finds. When successful, subsequent attempts to infect visitors to the breached site become much easier because the users tend to trust the sites they're visiting and often willingly download files from trusted sites, oblivious to the danger of hidden malicious payloads.

More than 80% of the software vulnerabilities being found by security researchers involve Web application flaws that allow attack techniques like SQL injection or Cross-Site Scripting, the report says.

Despite ongoing reports about Web flaws of this sort, the report says, most Web site owners fail to scan effectively for these common vulnerabilities.

The report also notes that zero-day vulnerabilities -- flaws disclosed prior to the availability of a fix -- are becoming more common. "Worldwide there has been a significant increase over the past three years in the number of people discovering zero-day vulnerabilities, as measured by multiple independent teams discovering the same vulnerabilities at different times," the report says. "Some vulnerabilities have remained unpatched for as long as two years."

A shortage of skilled security researchers in both the security industry and in government organizations has made it harder for organizations to defend against these attacks. "So long as that shortage exists, the defenders will be at a significant disadvantage in protecting their systems against zero-day attacks," the report says.

At the same time, the number of people with security skills -- for good or ill -- worldwide is increasing. As evidence of that, the report cites MS08-031 (Microsoft Internet Explorer DOM Object Heap Overflow Vulnerability), which was found independently by three researchers using different approaches.

"The implication of increasing duplicate discoveries is fairly alarming, in that the main mitigation for vulnerabilities of this type is patching, which is an invalid strategy for protecting against zero-day exploits," the report says.


InformationWeek has published an in-depth report on managing risk. Download the report here (registration required).

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