Adobe Patches Two Zero Day Vulnerabilities

Attackers have exploited the vulnerabilities via malicious PDFs sent to defense contractors.

Mathew J. Schwartz, Contributor

December 16, 2011

3 Min Read

Adobe has released updated versions of Reader 9.x and Acrobat 9.x--for Windows only--to mitigate two zero-day vulnerabilities that have been exploited by attackers targeting defense contractors.

The critical vulnerabilities were first discovered 10 days ago, via PDFs that contained malicious JavaScript. The PDFs were sent to defense contractors, attached to emails that used social engineering techniques to make them appear to be legitimate.

According to Adobe's security bulletin, the vulnerabilities "could cause a crash and potentially allow an attacker to take control of the affected system." Accordingly, the software vendor announced last week that it would be issuing a patch for the bugs as quickly as possible.

To mitigate the risk posed by the bugs, Adobe has recommended that all Windows Reader 9.x and Acrobat 9.x users immediately upgrade to the latest versions--Reader 9.4.7 or Acrobat 9.4.7--which it released Friday. (Adobe also noted that users can obtain the new versions by selecting "check for updates" via each application's drop-down "Help" menu.)

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While the vulnerabilities also exist in Adobe Reader X and Acrobat X, and on Macintosh and Unix systems, Adobe said that the X-version applications' sandboxing feature will prevent the attack from executing, and the bugs only appear to be exploitable on Windows. Accordingly, Adobe is waiting to patch these other applications until its next regularly scheduled quarterly patch release, which is set to occur Jan. 10, 2012. On the same day, it also plans to release updates for Macintosh (Reader and Acrobat) and Unix (Reader only) that mitigate the vulnerability.

The precise exploit being used in the attacks is known as Sykipot, and early versions of it first appeared in January 2010. "The goal of the attackers is to collect intellectual property and send it to a remote server of their choosing. Depending on the targeted organization, the data could be design, financial, manufacturing, or strategic planning information," said Vikram Thakur, principal security response manager at Symantec, in a blog post that analyzes the latest version of Sykipot. "The attackers involved in Sykipot have a history of attacking various industries, a majority of which belong to the defense industry."

Interestingly, "the Sykipot samples analyzed also contain Chinese language error message strings that appear to correspond to a tool used to package the threat," said Thakur. That finding, as well as the exploit's apparent intelligence-gathering motives, have led some security researchers to suggest that the Chinese government may have launched this Sykipot attack.

But independent security researcher Brandon Dixon said on his blog that his review of the attack code suggests that it wasn't the work of a nation state, but rather lazy developers with nationalistic tendencies. "The attackers re-used code that was publicly available and therefore makes our jobs as incident responders easier. Until any changes are seen within the documents being sent out, I think it is safe to say we have a good list of static signatures that can be used to identify them."

Notably, the presence of such static--and thus easy-to-spot--signatures suggests a lack of sophistication. "For this reason alone I have a hard time believing this attack was created by a nation-state government. Instead, I think this was done by a small group of people [whose] motivation would be to support their government and send data back to them," he said. "This sort of behavior fits the Chinese hacker model and gives a bit more value to the Chinese traits identified within the document and dropper."

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About the Author(s)

Mathew J. Schwartz


Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014.

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