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What Your Users Don't Know About Vulnerabilities Can Hurt You

Security strategies that rely on end user knowledge and action can be risky, experts say

If your security strategy relies on end users to perform updates or avoid risky behavior, then it's time to ask yourself a question: How much do end users really know about security vulnerabilities?

"Non-IT folks are often only aware of security vulnerabilities that are covered in mainstream publications and media or hit close to home by impacting a family member," says Mike Greide, senior security researcher at Zscaler. "As a result, while end users may ensure that they regularly run Windows Update or update their antivirus definitions, they do not seem to be updating or patching their client applications as consistently."

Keeping users informed about current threats is a job in itself, experts say -- and even if you succeed, many end users will still have gaps in their systems. Nonmainstream applications, old and outdated applications, unauthorized, user-downloaded applications -- such programs are often found on end user devices, but seldom secured or updated.

Greide cites Microsoft's Internet Explorer 6 as a good example of the older software problem.

"In the last quarter of 2009, we saw that roughly 48 percent of Internet Explorer users were still using IE 6," he says. "Nontechnical users probably do not understand the security features that are missing [in IE 6], such as active blacklisting, data execution prevention (DEP), and Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR). Newer versions of IE include these features, making exploitation more difficult."

Browser plug-ins, PDF Reader, Flash Player, Microsoft Office, and Java Runtime Environment (JRE) are also examples of applications that are frequently used, but seldom updated by end users, Greide observes.

Joshua Talbot, security intelligence manager at Symantec Security Response, says many end users are resistant to updates. "People are comfortable with older [applications]," he says. "The program solves their needs, they've used it for a while, and they assume it's safe. They may feel that they don't need the latest features a new version offers, being unaware of the security benefits that accompany it."

Educating users to the nature of vulnerabilities and warning them to do their updates is part of the solution, but it's a part that can go only so far.

"Generally, users have arrived at a good understanding of the impacts of an exploit," Talbot says, noting the widespread awareness of identity theft, as well as the threats associated with opening unsolicited e-mail or visiting untrustworthy sites.

"Behavioral education is effective in dealing with spam, phishing, and so on," he says. "But communicating the intricacies and technical nature of vulnerabilities to nontechnical people is tough."

Paradoxically, the increased awareness of behavioral risks could be enabling the spread of some vulnerabilities, experts say. The confidence that comes with downloading an app that has been scanned and verified as "virus-free" can quickly prove to be false, they say.

"A virus scan doesn't do anything to improve flawed or vulnerable code," Talbot observes. "And once it's downloaded, those flaws and vulnerabilities are on the user's machine."

Talbot's solution? "Take the software decision out of the user's hands. You can't burden [non-IT] users with technical information that's complex and constantly changing. Deploy only secure and up-to-date technology, and keep it up-to-date [via IT]."

Greide has concerns about the limits of behavioral education, as well, worrying that heightened wariness of "risky" sites keeps users from being properly wary of all sites.

"Users may not understand that legitimate sites may serve hidden malicious content, too," Greide says, citing threats from iFrames or JavaScript on some of the Web's most popular sites.

While in-depth technical education might be impractical, Greide says that even a short course in computer crime could help users raise their guards, particularly as social engineering tools and techniques are gaining popularity among the bad guys.

"A large problem is getting users to understand the lengths that cybercriminals go in order to social engineer their victims and re-evaluate what it means for them to trust something on the Web," Greide says. "Social engineering remains the easiest and most successful mechanism for cybercriminals to impact users."

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