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Web Applications: Achilles' Heel Of Corporate SecurityWeb Applications: Achilles' Heel Of Corporate Security

Custom-built software is more likely to garner an online attack and less likely to be disclosed in bug reports, IBM reveals.

Thomas Claburn

January 30, 2009

4 Min Read

Last year, 55% of all the computer security vulnerabilities disclosed affected Web applications, and 74% of these had no patch.

So says IBM in its 2008 X-Force Trend and Risk report, released Monday, which paints a dire picture of online computer security.

"Certain types of corporate applications, namely custom-built software like Web applications, remain a highly profitable and inexpensive target for criminal attackers," the report states. "The sheer number of new vulnerabilities, the majority of which have no available patch, coupled with the hundreds of thousands of custom Web applications that are also vulnerable (but never subject to a vulnerability disclosure, much less a patch), continue to be the Achilles' heel of corporate security."

The risk IBM sees is that as legitimate sites become compromised, customer trust becomes collateral damage.

It's worth bearing in mind that when you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and when you're selling security, everything looks like a threat. Even so, barring statistical chicanery, the numbers reported by IBM tell a sorry tale.

There were 13.5% more vulnerabilities recorded in 2008 than in 2007. By the year's end, 53% of reported vulnerabilities had no vendor-supplied patch. And that's to say nothing of the 46% of vulnerabilities from 2006 and 44% from 2007 that also remained unpatched.

Trojans targeting online games or online banks represented 46% of all malware.

Such figures might be more easily brushed aside were it not for recent high-profile security failures attributable to malware, like the Heartland Payment Systems data breach or the Downandup/Conflicker worm.

And keep in mind that IBM isn't alone in pointing out the vulnerability of Web applications. Security researchers at AVG Technologies recently said that in the past three months, the number of new infected Web sites grew by 66%, from 100,000 to 200,000 per day to 200,000 to 300,000 per day. And, according to Websense, 70 of the top 100 Web sites during the second half of 2008 either hosted malicious content or contained a link designed to redirect site visitors to a malicious Web site.

The most popular form of attack now is an old one. SQL injection attacks, which have been around for almost a decade, surged 134%, dethroning cross-site scripting as the most popular way to assault Web applications. IBM notes that at the beginning of 2008, there were a few thousand SQL attacks per day. By the end of the year, there were several hundred thousand SQL attacks per day.

"SQL injection vulnerabilities are plentiful and easily discovered," IBM's report explains. "It's also possible to use Web search engines such as Google to find sites running vulnerable applications, and there are many publicly available tools that can test for SQL injection, including some plug-ins for Firefox." Further complicating the security picture is the speed at which exploits are released. Whereas in the past it might have taken weeks or months for exploit code to appear following the disclosure of a vulnerability, now it often happens the same day.

"In 2008, 89% of these public exploits were released on the same day or before the official vulnerability disclosure," the report states. "Browser-related exploits, in particular, are increasingly prone to same-day exploit publication. In the first half of 2008, 94% of all browser-related public exploit code was published within 24 hours of official vulnerability disclosure, up from 79% in 2007."

The second half of 2008 turned out to be a bit better, with only 89% of browser-related exploit code appearing within a day of vulnerability disclosure.

While Windows machines remain the most affected by security problems, the Windows operating system did better than the competition in terms of the percentage of vulnerability disclosures per platform. The operating systems with the most disclosed vulnerabilities were Apple Mac OS X (14.3%), Apple Mac OS X Server (14.3%), Linux kernel (10.9%), Sun Solaris (7.3%), and Microsoft Windows XP (5.5%).

Don't read too much into this, however. While such findings may validate Microsoft's Security Development Lifecycle policy, Windows users still have more to worry about from malware than users of Mac OS X, at least for the time being. Also, consider that privately reported vulnerabilities aren't necessarily going to be made public.

In terms of malicious Web sites hosting client exploits, Microsoft fares less well. In the fourth quarter, the components affected by such exploits were Internet Explorer (34%), ActiveX (33.8%), Adobe Flash (14.8%), Adobe Acrobat (10%), generic exploit or obfuscation (7.1%), Mozilla Firefox (0.3%), and Microsoft Windows (0.1%).

No matter how you slice it, it isn't a pretty picture.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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