Web Application Vulns Drive Daunting Attack Trajectory

By Matthew Hines  |  Posted 2009-03-23 Print this article Print

Anyone following the IT security space in recent years has likely observed the futile situation that providers of traditional signature-based AV have found themselves in as a result of server-side polymorphism, or in simpler terms, the ability of malware distributors to launch smaller batches of more customized threats to avoid detection.

Even the most stalwart endpoint security providers, including Symantec and McAfee, have admitted the need for new tactics in stopping attacks as the many variants that cyber-criminals can create have made it harder to defend their customers using the long-standing fingerprinting approach.

From cloud-based intelligence that aims to speed the analysis of new threats and distribution of AV sigs, to so-called "herd" techniques that employ individual endpoints as front-end intelligence-gathering filters for the benefit of other users, vendors have been trying to come up with new methods to address the polymorphism issue.

However, beyond the sheer avalanche of attacks showing up on the IT landscape, an even bigger problem is lurking in the background, experts have begun pointing out.

For, even though OS makers including Microsoft - traditionally the biggest targets for malware threats - have been doing a better job of locking down their code in recent years and drumming out the vulnerabilities that have historically allowed most malware programs to take root, the ever-expanding world of Web applications is providing a glut of available flaws that could keep attackers busy for years to come, some industry watchers contend.

In a recent blog post titled simply "We Are Toast," Gartner Analyst Neil MacDonald concludes that things are only going to get worse in the world of malware unless something changes soon in the Web apps development lifecycle.

MacDonald points to some figures published by researchers at IBM's X-Force group as proof that the Web apps vulnerability issue is an extremely gigantic elephant stumbling around in the IT security room.

According to X-Force:

•Some 54.9 percent of all disclosed vulnerabilities were Web application flaws in 2008, driving growth of vulnerability disclosures

•SQL injection attacks increased by 30x within the last six months of 2008 •74 percent of Web application vulnerabilities disclosed in 2008 had no patch by year's end

And those numbers only deal with commercial Web apps. When you consider how many organizations are building their own sites and applications, likely without committing the same level of diligence to secure development that commercial vendors employ, one has to think that the number of available Web apps flaws is taking off exponentially.

Attackers are every bit as aware of the issue as security researchers as well, MacDonald writes.

"The OS platform isn't as attractive a target as it once was. Why? Microsoft and the other OS vendors are getting better at producing more secure code and we are getting better at patching. More importantly, applications and information are a much more attractive target because that's where the money is," the analyst said.

"The bad guys are moving their attention up the stack. Applications and information are the next battleground. Most of us aren't ready. Based on the data above, most of our software vendors aren't ready either. It's pretty simple. If we don't proactively start efforts now to produce more secure applications and demand the same from our software providers, the bad guys will find the vulnerabilities for us," MacDonald observes. "If we continue with the status quo, we are toast."

To their credit, and all vendor allegiances aside, it does seem that a growing number of organizations are getting it when it comes to addressing these problems in new ways, specifically by launching internal vulnerability management efforts that look at security from the opposite perspective of using AV or any other layered point defenses.

Security standards such as the PCI DSS mandate are also forcing organizations and commercial apps developers alike to do a better job of locking down their assets.

More traditional security systems still need to be employed, the thinking goes, but the only way that companies can truly solve their problems with malware attacks and subsequent data loss, most notably around Web applications, will be to find and eliminate more vulnerabilities by testing their systems more aggressively both during and after development.

The proof in this pudding will only be discernable in several years time when we'll see whether secure development and vulnerability management efforts have had the effect that their planners envision.

Until then, sit tight people.

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.

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