Vulnerabilities / Threats

8/31/2012
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Security Experts: Java Should Be Disabled Unless Necessary

Security researchers say Java's popularity as an attack vector means it should be disabled unless it is needed

Since the acquisition of Sun Microsystems a few years ago, Oracle has found itself tasked with protecting a technology that has increasingly come under the gun from attackers -- Java. According to security researchers, Java's popularity as an attack vector means it's time for organizations to disable it unless there is a strong use case.

"As it happens, very few websites rely on Java for dynamic content," says Tod Beardsley, Metasploit engineering manager at Rapid7. "Java isn't relied on nearly as much as Javascript and Flash. Most people can disable their Java browser plug-in and not really notice the difference."

The bugs at the center of much of the latest drama are CVE-2012-4681, which Oracle patched Thursday amid growing anxiety. However, there is a report that researchers from security vendor Security Explorations have found a vulnerabilityin the update that can be exploited to escape the Java sandbox and execute code.

In any case, hackers had been targeting CVE-2012-4681 for at least the previous week, and had incorporated exploits for the bug into a number of exploit kits, including Black Hole, Sweet Orange, and others.

[ Hundreds of domains are serving up the latest Java attack, with tens of thousands of new victim machines since the exploit was added to the BlackHole toolkit. See New 'Reliable' Java Attack Spreading Fast, Uses Two Zero-Day Bugs. ]

"Just about all other kits on the black market use Java, Phoenix, Eleonore, RedKit, and Sakura are just a few examples," says Chris Astacio, manager of security research at Websense. "In fact, some kits use exclusively Java to attack clients. The reason for this is that Java provides the highest infection rate of all the other vulnerabilities used -- perhaps even two to three times more successful than the next most vulnerable application."

Like Beardsley, Astacio says that most people do not really need Java for day-to-day use, and that lack of need is the reason many in the security community suggests disabling or removing it -- though that can create issues of its own in some cases.

"If an organization removes it all together, they are increasing their security posture because that's one less vector to worry about attackers getting into their organization," he says. "The issue for some organizations with disabling Java is that they may have custom applications which use it. For this purpose, many in the security community have suggested using two browsers, one for day-to-day browsing, which has Java disabled, and another with Java enabled, but for the specific use of such applications that require it."

Besides CVE-2012-4681, the most commonly exploited Java vulnerabilities of late have been CVE-2012-1723 -- which was been very popular among the BlackHole crowd, and CVE-2012-0507, which is mostly known for its use in the Flashback attacks, Satnam Narang, security response manager at Symantec, tells Dark Reading. Both of those vulnerabilities have been patched by Oracle. If there is a use case for having Java installed, it is best to ensure that it is up-to-date, he said.

While Java users face some security challenges due to the software's popularity as an attack vector, Beardsley says he is very pleased with the speed of Oracle's reaction to the latest zero-day.

"Oracle has about a zillion clients all running various versions of their many software offerings, so patch deployment is understandably complicated for them," he says. "That said, it would be nice to see them on a more flexible once-a-month cycle like other major software vendors. It's painful to get there, but it's certainly possible."

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