The institute says that applications and network devices are the primary targets.
An increase in the number of holes in software applications and network devices such as routers and switches is allowing malicious hackers to gain access to sensitive computers, including government and military systems, according to The SANS Institute.
SANS warned of the switch to attacks on applications and network devices in its annual publication of the Top 20 vulnerabilities last week. Critical holes in computer backup and anti-virus applications, as well as switch and router platforms, are part of a new wave of attacks that is shifting attention from holes in operating systems such as Windows, Web and e-mail servers. Software vulnerability scanning and better patching are the best ways to address the holes, SANS said.
The annual SANS Top 20 highlights holes in software programs that are considered the most serious for security professionals. As in past years, the list contains warnings about security holes in Windows and popular Internet applications such as Internet Explorer and Outlook Express.
However, Microsoft Corp. shares the spotlight this year with Symantec Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., Oracle Corp. and others, after a year in which warnings about vulnerabilities in anti-virus and backup software and the surprise publication of information on a hole in Ciscos IOS (Internetwork Operating System) made headlines.
Enterprises have been preoccupied with operating system and Internet threats and ignored the threat posed by holes in software applications by major vendors, according to Alan Paller, director of research at SANS, in Bethesda, Md.
For example, computer backup systems are rich targets for attack because they collect sensitive information from other systems and also must be accessible to enterprise systems that they manage, said Paller.
SANS Internet Storm Center recorded a sharp spike in Internet scans for systems running the Veritas Backup Exec software, which is now sold by Symantec, after a crop of high-risk holes were announced in June, according to Johannes Ullrich, chief technology officer at ISC.
"Everybody needs to have access to the backup server to do backups. Its a critical service," Ullrich said.
Along with the United Kingdoms National Infrastructure Security Co-ordination Centre and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, SANS issued dire warnings about the impact of software vulnerabilities on national security.
Vulnerabilities are being used in targeted attacks against U.K. and U.S. companies and government Web sites to gather and transmit privileged information, according to SANS.
Coordinated phishing attacks that placed Trojan horse programs on systems owned by leading British companies and the U.K. government in June and attacks on U.S. government computers that were traced back to Chinese Web sites are just a couple of examples of "devastating attacks that are being carried out against government and military contractor sites," SANS said.
The new face of the SANS Top 20
* Media players
iTunes, Windows Media Player, RealPlayer and others contain holes that can be exploited by attacks hidden in a Web page or media file
* Backup software
by Symantec/Veritas, CA, EMC Corp. and others; collect sensitive data from systems across the enterprise; exploit code has been published to attack vulnerabilities on systems running backup servers and backup clients
* Anti-virus software
by Symantec, Trend Micro Inc., CA, McAfee Inc. and others; buffer overflow vulnerabilities can be used to take control of a vulnerable system remotely and with no user interaction
Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at eWEEK.com Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog.