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Security Exploits Increasingly Complex

A study from HP TippingPoint finds that web applications are still an attack magnet, but hackers now appear to be collaborating more closely to spot new flaws.
More than 80% of network attacks now target web-based systems, according to a new study released by HP TippingPoint.

"That trend, in and of itself, wasn't obviously too newsworthy, but what was really striking to us was that most of these attacks are so much more sophisticated than they were," said Mike Dausin, manager of Advanced Security Intelligence for HP TippingPoint DVLabs. "One of the exploits we see these days actually has release notes in it."

Unfortunately, that alone suggests a hitherto previously unseen level of black hat collaboration. "Hackers are taking this very seriously and are collaborating with other black hats to develop code that has a much better chance of exploiting people when they visit their malicious sites," he said. Their goals, as ever, continue to be largely financial.

The report also found that there are a striking number of zero-day vulnerabilities at large at any given time, affecting some of the most used software products. "We may know of five, six, seven at any given time," he said. "People who are savvy in the industry already know this, but most people we tell just don't realize how many vulnerabilities there are in the products they use every day."

What's also changed is the number of people who independently discover these vulnerabilities. "Two years ago, it was very anomalous for us to find a vulnerability that someone else had found, but as of last year and certainly continuing this year, it was very common for two researchers to find the exact same vulnerability in a product," said Dausin.

Partially, that's to do with vulnerability tool kits getting better, allowing more researchers to discover bugs. But unfortunately, if researchers with good intentions can unearth more bugs, so can people with other plans. "It would be naive to say that only the legitimate researchers are finding these vulnerabilities, especially since multiple researchers are finding them at the same time," he said.

What can be done to help break the efficacy of these zero-day attacks? "One thing we expect will happen in the near future is that PC users will start to move toward a smartphone-type model, where the average PC will only be able to download and install an application from an app store," said Dausin. For viruses that rely on executing arbitrary code, "many of those problems go away" if you lock down the ability to execute executables, he said.

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