Internet Scan Shows Decline in Insecure Network Services

While telnet, rsync, and SMB, exposure surprisingly have dropped, proper patching and encryption adoption remain weak worldwide.

4 Min Read

A comprehensive study of Internet-connected devices conducted over nearly four weeks in late March and early April shows that organizations surprisingly have become better about not exposing the most insecure services to the Internet.

Rapid7 today released a massive 165-page report on the state of security on the Net that found easy-to-exploit protocols — such as server message block (SMB), file transfer protocol (FTP), and telnet — have declined anywhere from 2% to 16%, despite the move to remote work after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Rapid7's National/Industry/Cloud Exposure Report (NICER). Given that Asia and Europe were firmly in lockdowns and the United States had just started entering its own lockdown, the researchers expected a lot more chaos.

The Internet's security situation has definitely improved, says Tod Beardsley, director of research for Rapid7. "We saw a fairly large drop in SMB and telnet, our favorite vulnerable punching bags — things that you should never, ever, ever put on the Internet," he says. "So, at least structurally, on a protocol and service basis, the Internet seems to be going in the right direction, which was surprising to us."

But a great deal of security problems continue to be apparent, Rapid7 found. Most organizations continue to delay patches, with 3.6 million SSH servers apparently running software version that are between 5- and 14-years old, the report found. More websites continue to offer the insecure HTTP protocol, rather than enforcing encrypted connections. 

For most protocols, millions of servers are running vulnerable versions of software or configured to allow the use of no encryption. Often, the infrastructure seems to be left vulnerable through neglect, the report stated. More than 3 million databases allow unencrypted queries, while nearly 3 million networking devices  — such as routers and switches — accept unencrypted telnet connections.

"The internet is not an automatic money- and culture-generating machine," the report stated. "It depends on the heroic efforts of thousands and thousands of professionals who are committed to its well-being, even in the face of daily attacks from a wide array of technically savvy criminals and spies."

The report also measured every country and industry based on the relative security of their Internet endpoints. Using a measure of vulnerable attack-surface area consisting of the number of Internet addresses, vulnerable software at those addresses, and the total number of vulnerabilities found in a specific device, Rapid7 created a measure of relative vulnerability for each country and industry. 

The United States and China sit at the top of the chart, which is unsurprising, given that the two countries own a great deal of Internet address space.

"With more endpoints, you have more chances to fail, because you have more patches you have to keep up with," Beardsley says

Rapid7 also graded each industry for its relative security posture, by combining the number of endpoints exposed with the number of vulnerabilities detected per endpoint. The aerospace and auto-parts manufacturing industries made top marks for security, while telecommunications, financial services, and healthcare sat at the bottom of the grading chart.  

The majority of instances of insecure protocols occurred in vulnerable versions of the Apache Web server, which for many organizations may represent an embedded server on a network appliance or other device. More than 80% of these vulnerable devices were more the three years old, Rapid7 says. 

The company argued that well-informed policy makers could help companies better secure their systems by issuing guidance on insecure protocols, share threat information about known weak protocols with other countries, and study how such protocols can affect national economies. 

"Overall, what we are finding is that businesses are slowly going in the right direction," Beardsley says. "The distribution is pretty lumpy, some countries are doing things better than other countries. There is work to be done here."

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About the Author(s)

Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer

Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline Journalism (Online) in 2003 for coverage of the Blaster worm. Crunches numbers on various trends using Python and R. Recent reports include analyses of the shortage in cybersecurity workers and annual vulnerability trends.

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