Along with Cisco Systems Inc., Oracle was a choice whipping boy at last weeks Black Hat USA security conference. Regardless, Oracle users remained nonplussed by revelations about Oracle security both leading up to and coming from the show.
“In general, Oracle databases are subject to many fewer security attacks than are Microsoft [Corp.]s database and Microsofts other products,” said Howard Fosdick, an independent consultant, president of FCI, and founder and past president of IDUG and CAMP, in an e-mail exchange. “[And] I think most Oracle users would agree that Oracle provides patches in a manner timely to any issues.”
At issue are not only the security flaws themselves, but also how quickly Oracle patches known vulnerabilities and how well it patches those vulnerabilities.
To wit: At Black Hat, Alexander Kornbrust, founder and CEO of Red-Database-Security GmbH and a security researcher known for exposing Oracle product flaws, planned to demonstrate a simple way to crack the encryption used by Oracle database products.
Kornbrust maintains that DBMS Crypto and DBMS Obfuscation, two encryption features that ship with Oracle database products, can be cracked to reveal sensitive corporate data.
In the weeks leading up to the show, Kornbrust also warned that Oracle failed to patch several critical flaws for a period that now exceeds 700 days.
On top of that, Oracles CPUs (cumulative patch updates) for April and July both turned out to be flawed and in need of further patching.
The flood of negative news spurred Oracle to emerge from its usual silence on security headlines. Last week, Oracle Chief Security Officer Mary Ann Davidson wrote an article in which she said that self-interested security researchers who publish flaws before patches are available endanger the industry with their thirst for fame.
Oracle users interviewed for this article agreed with Davidson.
“As for those researchers who let exploits and exploit code out of the bag … Well, lets just say that hanging, drawing and quartering is too good for them,” said Dick Goulet, a senior Oracle DBA and Oracle Certified DBA, in an e-mail exchange. “And so what if it takes the vendor 700 days to patch the hole. It should be up to the vendor to open Pandoras box if they so desire, not these educated idiots. … They found an exploit, whether or not known by the hacker community, [and] why on earth would you want to place everyones data at greater risk by publicizing it? All you fuel is more attempted exploits.”
While some database experts find Oracle users tranquility a sign that their heads are in the sand, given the flood of negative news, Oracle users say that their databases are generally tucked so carefully behind firewalls and tended to with such care that theres little need for concern.
“We dont have our databases exposed to the Web, so hacker attacks are not much of a priority,” Goulet said.
Next page: Bugs are difficult to exploit.
Another reason for the lack of upset is that at least some of the scarier-sounding bugs, while causing initial consternation, turned out to be extremely difficult to exploit. Mike Wessler, an Oracle consultant with Perpetual Technologies Inc., said that his research into Kornbrusts security advisories on Oracle Forms and Oracle Reports showed that the flaws in question were only exploitable if a system were already compromised.
“[The flaws] sound very, very scary, of course,” Wessler said. “But as we looked into it, it looked like, to take advantage of those, a bad guy would have already had to have placed a malicious report or form on the system, so the system would already have been exploited. So basically, you have to already have been able to get on the machine to start out with. So its not as bad as the initial threat stated.”
The Oracle Forms and Oracle Report vulnerabilities allow malicious users to run any operating system command or to read or write on any file system. In lieu of Oracle having yet put out a CPU that includes patches for these particular flaws, Kornbrust offers workarounds in his advisories.
But, Wessler said, those workarounds cant be applied injudiciously. “You have to be careful they dont disable functionality for current applications,” he said. “[The flaws enable hackers to] utilize tools and utilities and options for bad purposes, and you can disable them, but you have to make sure your applications arent using those options ahead of time. And also, once again, [the workarounds are] dependent on [the fact] that somebody hasnt put a malicious report on the machine.”
Should flaws that are so difficult to exploit have been published in the first place? Should Oracle patch faster than it does? As far as finger-pointing goes, Wessler said he cant find fault with either party. “One guy wants to make [flaws] public to see action. Oracle on the other hand has its own internal processes, and they cant address these threats if it would break other applications,” he said. “The knee-jerk reaction is to get angry with Oracle at letting these risks come out. But that would be an incorrect action.
“With these particular threats, good management of servers will take care of problems more than any bug fix,” he said. In order to be at risk in the first place, you almost have to “give all users super-user powers,” he said. “Whos to blame, the user or the account administrator?”
But as far as the quality of patching goes, Wessler admitted that Oracles faulty patches put more work on the plate for administrators and forces system upgrades at organizations that otherwise would be unwilling to upgrade.
“Its forcing an issue,” he said. “Many companies and agencies are under mandates to apply security patches when they come out. We have many customers being forced to apply critical patch updates whether they want to or not. So its really adding a lot more work for them” when they have to patch patches, he said.
“These brought to light the fact that many dont operate on the latest and greatest software releases, and now people are being forced to update quarterly, and thats causing some stress,” he said.
At any rate, Wessler said, Oracles CPUs are improving. Julys CPU was restructured with regard to how some pieces of the application server are patched vs. the database, and the OPatch utility has made things much easier, he said. OPatch is a utility that checks to see what patches have already been applied to both the database and application server. It then rolls back the old patch sets and reapplies the new patch sets.
Another thing making Oracle patching easier in general is that users are more experienced with the CPUs at this point and know what to expect, Wessler said. Specifically, theyre aware that before patches are applied, software has to be “fairly recent.”
“If I were running an old version of 9i application server, to get the latest and greatest patch set, Id need to upgrade to the latest 10g application server,” he said.
“Upgrading is difficult, but once at that level and maintaining it, applying patch sets isnt difficult,” he said.
For his part, Goulet admits that Oracles reluctance to back-port patches “can be a real irritant,” along with the possibility of a patch resurrecting a previously cured bug. But his real problem, he said, isnt with Oracle—its with users who wont give up their production databases for the patching process.
“Its worse that getting Great White shark teeth from the living sharks,” he said. “Actually, the sharks are more merciful—they dont like to keep you living in pain so long.”
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