The number of security vulnerabilities discovered in software products rose 5 percent in 2013, but the most common applications on desktop systems had fewer flaws reported this year, according to a report released by vulnerability management firm Secunia.
The report underscores the shift in vulnerability researchers' and attackers' strategies from focusing on finding flaws in Microsoft products to other popular platforms. While Microsoft accounts for 29 of the top 50 programs most commonly found on computers, only 14 percent of vulnerabilities were found in Microsoft's products. Third-party software—such as Google's Chrome browser, Mozilla's Firefox browser and Apple's iTunes—account for 86 percent of vulnerabilities.
"It has become harder to find serious vulnerabilities in Microsoft applications, so that's why researchers are looking elsewhere," said Thomas Kristensen, chief security officer for Secunia. "In addition, they patch pretty quickly, so there is less payoff for finding vulnerabilities in their systems."
The vulnerabilities data comes from the company's analysis of 9,776 security issues reported in 2012 in more than 2,500 products from 421 vendors, a different data set than previous reports released in February. A study by NSS Labs using the National Vulnerability Database, for example, tallied 5,225 flaws as counted by their Common Vulnerabilities and Exposure (CVE) identifier.
Google's Chrome, Mozilla's Firefox and Apple's iTunes accounted for the highest number of vulnerabilities in the list of the top 50 most popular applications. Google patched 291 issues in its Chrome browser, Mozilla plugged 257 issues in its Firefox browser, and Apple fixed 243 flaws in iTunes, according to Secunia's tally of the issues.
Other top 50 programs—including attackers' favorites, such as Oracle's Java and Adobe's Flash and Reader—each accounted for less than 70 vulnerabilities each. More than three-quarters of vulnerabilities in the top 50 programs were rated "high severity," while more than 5 percent were given the top rating of "extreme severity."
"Companies cannot continue to ignore or underestimate non-Microsoft programs as the major source of vulnerabilities that threaten their IT infrastructure and overall IT-security level," Morten R. Stengaard, Secunia's director of product management, said in a statement accompanying the report.
Overall, security researchers and software developers appear to be working better, as demonstrated by a much larger proportion of vulnerability disclosures being accompanied by patches. In 2012, software developers released a patch on the same day as 84 percent of the vulnerabilities reported, up from 72 percent in 2011.
"The large vendors, who have been in the fire this whole time, they are getting better at releasing patches and communicating with researchers," said Kristensen.
While most of the top-50 programs have auto-update mechanisms, some do not, which leaves many companies and consumer open to attack, and slows the adoption of patches, Kristensen said.
Secunia's data also shows that attackers are focusing their greatest research efforts on only the most popular programs. Almost all zero-day exploits—those attacks that target yet-to-be-disclosed vulnerabilities—for the past six years focused on the top-25 applications, the company found. Finding and developing exploits for vulnerabilities takes a higher level of skill and knowledge than using existing exploits for known flaws.