Java Exploits on the Rise

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2007-07-23 Print this article Print

Opinion: Things were supposed to be different with Java and security, but now that the heat is really on, Java's turning out to have many of the same security issues as other platforms.

Id seen it myself recently, but Symantecs Security Response team has officially noticed that attacks on Java are on the rise. We were all probably a little too naive back in the mid-90s when Java came out promising, among other exaggerated claims, immunity from security problems. There were always some Java security issues, but they werent realistic threats, just proofs of concept that nobody would bother to implement. Most of the higher-profile problems seem to be more in the interface between Java and the outside world. Recall earlier this year, when there were a series of high-profile security flaws in the QuickTime Java interface. There have also been a series of vulnerabilities in recent months in Java Web Start. The news in these cases was about vulnerabilities and not about exploits.

Some of the exploits are purely in the Java end of things, and they turn out to be the same sorts of software operations that are prone to vulnerability in non-VM software. Consider the recent vulnerability in Javas image parsing code. The parsing of data coming out of files seems to be a never-ending source of security issues in all platforms. Many such problems in less-famous applications go largely unpublicized, even when they are properly reported and fixed by the vendor.

To read more about Java security problems in QuickTime, click here.

And Java is a relatively standard part of the Internet landscape and malware authors seem to be getting around to it. The reason Symantec wrote their blog was because these exploits are starting to show up on their massive world-wide honeypot network. I have seen other public reports of malicious Java code, such as this one from the ISC. It could be that were just getting started with Java as an exploit platform. Symantec notes, for example, that Javas heap management makes it possible for it to be used to develop heap spraying code. (See this other Symantec blog and the links in it for more on heap spraying and heap feng shui, now-popular techniques for throwing code up against the wall to see what sticks.) If these could be made largely reliable—even if it only worked 50 percent of the time that would be more than enough—Java is on a steep slide into trouble. Its not clear to me whether a rewrite of Javas heap management to address the problem would cause compatibility problems for actual Java code.

Symantecs advice for dealing with Java security issues is disturbingly mundane: keep your Java implementation up to date, use an IDS/IPS (intrusion detection system/ intrusion prevention system) and keep the signatures up to date, dont browse unsecure Web sites, etc. Just like with non-Java products. But, werent things supposed to be different?

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. 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 Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers blog Cheap Hack More from Larry Seltzer
Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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