Un-patched client side software remains a huge problem in thwarting the efforts of cyber-attackers of nearly all stripes, but particularly those employing targeted threats, according to security training specialist SANS Institute, which released its latest list of top cyber-risks on Tuesday.
End users and vendors may be doing a better job of keeping their operating system security patches up to date, but the widespread availability of exploitable client-side flaws is making it possible for "waves of targeted attacks" including spear phishing campaigns to have their way with victims' machines, SANS reported.
Unaddressed holes in popular desktop applications including Adobe PDF Reader, QuickTime, Adobe Flash and Microsoft Office are leaving users around the globe vulnerable to attackers, many of whom are using infected Web sites to assault their targets.
"This is currently the primary initial infection vector used to compromise computers that have Internet access," SANS experts said in the report. "Because the visitors feel safe downloading documents from the trusted sites, they are easily fooled into opening documents and music and video that exploit client-side vulnerabilities."
Drive-bys that do not require end user interaction also remain very popular, of course. In most cases, the ultimate goal of the attackers remains to steal data from the involved end users' organizations and to install backdoors through which they can return time and again for further exploitation.
A lack of dexterity among organizations in addressing client-side issues remains the major catalyst.
"On average, major organizations take at least twice as long to patch client-side vulnerabilities as they take to patch operating system vulnerabilities," SANS reported. "In other words the highest priority risk is getting less attention than the lower priority risk."
Just behind client-side flaws, vulnerable Web sites remain the second most prevalent weak point among most organizations, according to the researchers.
According to SANS, direct attacks carried out against Web applications currently account for over 60 percent of all online threats. Most frequently attackers are seeking to subvert the sites and use them to distribute their own nefarious content.
Web application vulnerabilities including SQL injection and Cross-Site Scripting flaws in open-source and custom-built applications accounted for over 80 percent of all the flaws discovered in Q3 2009, the training firm said.
Unresponsive site owners are the big issue in this regard.
"Despite the enormous number of attacks and despite widespread publicity about these vulnerabilities, most Web site owners fail to scan effectively for the common flaws and become unwitting tools used by criminals to infect the visitors that trusted those sites to provide a safe web experience," SANS experts said.
At the same time, there is cause for hope in the arena of OS vulnerabilities, as SANS said that it has noted a sharp decline in the number of threats, in particular worm viruses, being leveled at the technologies.
However, despite those gains, the number of attacks observed that targeted buffer overflow vulnerabilities in Windows tripled from Q2 to Q3 2009, and constituted over 90 percent of attacks seen against the Windows OS.
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Matt Hines has been following the IT industry for over a decade as a reporter and blogger, and has been specifically focused on the security space since 2003, including a previous stint writing for eWeek and contributing to the Security Watch blog. Hines is currently employed as marketing communications manager at Core Security Technologies, a Boston-based maker of security testing software. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of Core Security, and neither the company, nor its products and services will be actively discussed in the blog. Please send news, research or tips to SecurityWatchBlog@gmail.com.