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2/6/2017
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Vulnerabilities Hit High Water Mark in 2016

The good news is that coordinated disclosure keeps getting better.

It's the same story, but a different year for application security as a new report today shows that for the fifth year running the number of reported software vulnerabilities broke an all-time record. According to the report from Risk Based Security, which counted vulnerabilities catalogued on the firm's VulnDB intelligence platform, 2016 tallied 15,000 new vulnerabilities disclosed. Compared to 2011, this represents an increase of more than 85% in vulnerabilities disclosed annually.  

"With all the data breaches disclosed and the talk that security is important, you would expect to see some meaningful improvement. The big surprise is that we continue to see little to no improvement in the security of software," says Jake Kouns, chief information security officer for Risk Based Security. "Vendors continue to produce software that puts their customers at risk.  With increased financial liability that organizations face and the new exposures putting people's safety and property at risk, one would have expected and hoped to see a step in the right direction indicating more secure software." 

The 2016 cumulative numbers break down to a rate of disclosure of about 41 new vulnerabilities discovered each day of the year. This constant stream of flaws just piles on to security organizations that find it hard enough to manage all the other old vulnerabilities present in their software. According to the 2016 Verizon Data Breach Investigation Report, a count of vulnerabilities exploited by attackers by year of discovery shows that the most popular vulnerability vintage dates back to 2007. Attackers still find the most success with decade-old flaws because patch windows remain ridiculously open-ended.   

According to Kouns, organizations need to use reports like these to make their software vendors more accountable for the state of security within their product offerings.

"We want vendors to respond quickly and provide a fix for known security issues, but even more so we want vendors to take security serious and produce secure code from the beginning that doesn't require expensive patch management processes," Kouns says.

He suggests that security practitioners should be evaluating software based on which vendors and products put them at the most risk, or cost the most money to maintain a secure posture.

This means evaluating not only based on number of vulnerabilities disclosed, but also the severity of vulnerabilities uncovered, the vendor response time and patch time when contacted by security researchers, and the average time. These numbers are important in getting a total picture of risk - for example, in terms of pure numbers Oracle lead the pack with 1,288 new vulnerabilities posted. However, the average CVSS score for these stood below six. Meanwhile, Adobe had far fewer new vulnerabilities at 549, but the average CVSS score was over nine. What's more, the average time until an exploit was available was just one day for Adobe, compared to 23 days for Oracle.

It's not just software vendors that need better accountability, either. Kouns says that the report also shows that security vendors and practitioners may need to rethink how they enumerate their vulnerabilities when tracking and prioritizing software security. Similar to previous years, the number of vulnerabilities reported by VulnDB outpaced the number of flaws published by CVE/NVD. This year's delta worked out to approximately 44%, with 6,659 more vulnerabilities put out by VulnDB.

"While CVE has value, it is not covering everything, and specifically [it is] lacking coverage of third-party library vulnerabilities that continue to have major impact on software," Kouns says, explaining that the concern is that security vendors and organizations continue to rely solely on CVE as the basis around which they build their vulnerability management products and practices.

Though vulnerability numbers are still discouraging, one thing that the industry as a whole seems to be getting right is disclosure. Over the past five years there's been a marked improvement in the percentage of vulnerabilities announced through coordinated disclosures versus uncoordinated. After an inflection point in 2014 where it was nearly 50-50, the ratio this past year shows 6735 vulnerabilities reported through coordinated disclosure versus 2195 uncoordinated.

"We have seen that this issue is getting better," says Kouns. "Security researchers and vendors are, in fact, working together to address issues."

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Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading.  View Full Bio

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