Java is the application development language of the Internet. It is everywhere on the Web. Although it is regularly updated, it has always contained serious flaws that make it an inviting target for hackers and cyber-criminals.
In 2012, Java applications became software components most targeted by cyber-attackers, but companies have still not worked to cull older versions of the popular software from their systems, according to a research report released on July 18 by security firm Bit9.
The study, based on data from more than 1 million endpoints, showed that computers and devices in an enterprise—whether desktops, laptops, servers or point-of-sale systems—had, on average, 1.6 versions of Java installed. Almost two-thirds of endpoints had two or more versions of the software installed, Bit9 stated in the report.
"The solution is that organizations need to take a serious look at their use of Java," Harry Sverdlove, chief technology officer of reputation-based security firm Bit9, told eWEEK. "This is not just one of a million things that organizations can do to improve their security posture—this is the most attacked vector. They need to seriously consider what their policy is and where Java is deployed in their environment."
Java has rapidly become the most exploited software component on computer systems, accounting for the method of compromise in 50 percent of attacks in 2012, compared to 25 percent in 2011, according to security firm Kaspersky. At the same time, the Adobe PDF format accounted for 28 percent of attacks in 2012, down from 35 percent in 2011.
The popularity of Java vulnerabilities among attackers is driven by a number of factors, including its widespread use in business environments and its existence on different operating-system platforms. In addition, attacks against the software are quickly created from public vulnerabilities and incorporated into widely available "exploit kits" which allow even non-technical criminals to compromise systems.
Despite these threats, companies still have a significant problem controlling the proliferation of Java versions in their organizations, says Sverdlove. Only 1 percent of organizations had the latest version of Java installed, while more than 90 percent of companies had at least one endpoint with a version of Java older than 5 years.
"The fact that a majority of observed environments apparently use significantly out-of-date versions of Java points to potential issues in how well the average organization manages its software as well as the large attack surface area presented by Java in the majority of organizations," Bit9's report stated.
The most widely deployed version of Java—Java 6 Update 20—has 96 critical vulnerabilities given the most serious severity rating, a 10.0, using the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS), according to the report.
Security researchers and malware authors have both looked to Java as a fertile codebase in which to find vulnerabilities. In 2012, 47 highly critical vulnerabilities were discovered in the software, according to NSS Labs, a security analysis firm. With so many vulnerabilities discovered every year, Oracle has focused on locking down Java and making it more difficult for unsigned binaries to impact the operating system.
In a blog post in May, Nandini Ramani, the software development lead for Java, told the technology community and Java developers that Oracle would work hard to maintain the "security-worthiness" of the software.
"It is our belief that as a result of this ongoing security effort, we will decrease the exploitability and severity of potential Java vulnerabilities in the desktop environment and provide additional security protections for Java operating in the server environment," she said.