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Vulnerabilities / Threats

2/23/2017
08:50 AM
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End-Of-Life Software Alive And Well On US PCs

7.5% of users ran unpatched Windows operating systems in Q4 of 2016, up from 6.1 percent in Q3 of 2016, new study shows.

The average PC user in the United States has 75 programs installed on their machine and 7.4% are end-of-life software that no longer receive regular vendor security updates.

This finding comes from a new report published this week by Secunia Research at Flexera Software, that studied vulnerable software on private PCs in 12 countries.

Unpatched software vulnerabilities are popular and obvious attack vectors, and unpatched private devices can ultimately affect businesses whose users do work from home devices. 

The annual rise in vulnerabilities is making is harder for businesses to manage the risks of unpatched software, explains Kasper Lindgaard, director of Secunia Research at Flexera Software, whose firm studied vulnerable software products on private PCs in 12 countries, list vulnerable apps, and rank them by how much they expose PCs to attack.

"Once hackers successfully exploit a vulnerability, they have the ability to start moving around in the businesses and start to gain access to data of all kinds," he says. "It is then down to the imagination of the hacker what data will be stolen, if it will be leaked, if direct or indirect financial impacts will happen."

In Q4 2016, some 7.5% of private PC users in the US had unpatched Windows operating systems (Win7, Win8, Win10, Windows Vista). This marks a decrease from 9.9% in Q4 2015, but an increase from 6.1% in Q3 2016. Of the 75 programs installed on each device, 42% are Microsoft programs and 58% come from other vendors.

Lindgaard says he wouldn't call it "easy" for attackers to exploit Windows machines, but does note that the longer a security patch is not installed, the more time hackers have to develop an effective exploit. For most popular apps, patches are available the same day vulnerabilities are disclosed, meaning businesses and private users can quickly mitigate the risk.

"The fact that this is not happening every time shows that there is work to be done with the software supply chain," he notes. "The gap between vendors and users, when it comes to users knowing about the vulnerabilities affecting products to applying security patches, is still too wide."

Fourteen percent of users had unpatched non-Microsoft programs in Q4 2016, an increase from 13.8% in Q3 2016 and 12.2% in Q4 2015. Forty-two percent of vulnerabilities originated from non-Microsoft programs between January and December 2016, according to the Secunia report.

iTunes For the 'Win'

Secunia ranks the top most exposed programs based on two parameters: percentage of market share, multiplied by how many users neglect to patch them when a patch is available.

The most exposed programs in Q4 2016 were Apple iTunes 12.x. (55% unpatched); Oracle Java JRE 1.8.x/8.x, (50% unpatched); VLC Media Player 2.x (44% unpatched); Adobe Reader XI 11.x (48% unpatched); and Google Picasa 3.x (48% unpatched).

Lindgaard says he's surprised to see this trend, which is consistent quarter after quarter. "Security updates for each of these products are straightforward to download and apply, if the users are aware of the patches," he notes.

Awareness is part of the problem. Many products and systems go unpatched because of dysfunctionality in the software supply chain, he continues. Not enough users and businesses are aware to invest in the resources they need to gain overview and solve the dysfunctionality, leading to a slowdown in patching.

Hackers know most private PC users don't want to put in the effort for regular security maintenance. Researchers found the average device requires 26 different update mechanisms to patch 75 programs.

However, users are still at risk if they continue to run unsupported, end-of-life programs with software vulnerabilities.

"Patch, patch, patch," says Lindgaard to private users and security pros . "But before you do, make sure you know which products you are running. Second, ensure you have the required vulnerability intelligence, so you actually know when -- and what -- you need to patch."

Private users, he explains, should regularly scan their devices and wipe end-of-life programs from their systems. Enterprise security teams should work with software management teams to find and inventory their apps, and remove unsupported programs from the mix.

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Kelly Sheridan is the Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focuses on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial ... View Full Bio

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