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Vulnerability Management

1/17/2020
10:15 AM
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Massive Oracle Patch Reverses Company's Trend Toward Fewer Flaws

Following a year that saw the fewest number of vulnerabilities reported since 2015, Oracle's latest quarterly patch fixes nearly 200 new vulnerabilities.

On Tuesday, six different software companies released fixes for their applications, but perhaps the most worrisome was Oracle's release of a massive critical patch update (CPU) that closes 334 different software vulnerabilities, setting a record for the company's quarterly patches.

However, the count — provided by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which urged companies to patch quickly — refers to every vulnerability fixed by the update. While there are 334 issues fixed by Oracle's CPU, "only" 198 are new as of Jan. 14, says Brian Martin, vice president of intelligence for vulnerability-information firm Risk Based Security. 

"The CPUs will contain a significant number of previously disclosed vulnerabilities, often in third-party libraries," says Martin, adding that "the sticker shock on the CPU warning is certainly there, but any organization with decent vulnerability intel will have a head start as far as knowing about some of the risk."

While 198 new vulnerabilities is not a record for Oracle, the massive update does reverse a downward trend for the company. Oracle's critical patch updates (CPUs) rolled up between 122 and 206 vulnerabilities over each of the past seven quarters, according to RBS data. However, last year the company saw the fewest number of vulnerabilities reported in the past four years, with 644 vulnerabilities — as represented by their Common Vulnerability Enumeration (CVE) identifiers — published in the National Vulnerability Database, compared to a peak of 893 vulnerabilities in 2017.

In fact, the numbers declined so much, hitting a quarterly low of 122 for the October 2018 CPU, that experts wondered whether Oracle had managed to weed out the most easy-to-find issues, says RBS's Martin. He sees the latest spike as bucking the trend, but could not say where the trend is headed. 

In the Jan. 14 advisory, Oracle warned its customers that some of the patches fixed by its software updates were being used by attackers to compromise systems. Rather than signal a new trend, exploitation of some of the flaws in the massive update underscores a problem that Oracle administrators routinely face. 

"Oracle continues to periodically receive reports of attempts to maliciously exploit vulnerabilities for which Oracle has already released security patches," the company stated in its advisory. "In some instances, it has been reported that attackers have been successful because targeted customers had failed to apply available Oracle patches. Oracle therefore strongly recommends that customers remain on actively supported versions and apply Critical Patch Update security patches without delay."

The patches should be applied quickly, which is typically an easy decision for most companies, says Sebastian Bortnik, director of research at enterprise-application security firm Onapsis. 

"The patch process is not as simple as some other platforms, but once you do it, you get all the patches at the same time," he says, "Of course, you have to test the patches because most companies' applications have a lot of custom code."

The most efficient way to deploy the CPU is to apply it to a preproduction system and test it before pushing that system live, Bortnik says. "While many customers will want to fully test the patches, staging the patch to preproduction can work for some customers," he says. "Thinking about the testing process for millions of lines of custom code, this may be the best way to handle it."

The release came on a day when a number of major software firms — Microsoft, Adobe, and SAP — also released their security updates. The DHS's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) flagged the release on Jan. 14, advising that a "remote attacker could exploit some of these vulnerabilities to take control of an affected system" and encouraging companies to "apply the necessary updates."

Both the growing number of applications that Oracle has under development, as well as an increasing focus by security researchers on such enterprise applications, will likely continue to result in more vulnerability reports for the company to triage.

"With a growing software portfolio, that also means more pen testers and employees with access to that software and the ability to test could cause a shift in numbers, but we may also see some software drop in vulnerability counts due to lack of interest or exhausting some of the low-hanging vulnerabilities," RBS's Martin says. 

Will the number keep increasing this year? "The answer ... is a resounding maybe," he says.

Related Content:

Check out The Edge, Dark Reading's new section for features, threat data, and in-depth perspectives. Today's top story: "With International Tensions Flaring, Cyber Risk is Heating Up for All Businesses."

 

Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline ... View Full Bio

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