2005 Off to an Insecure Start

Opinion: The development cycle of vulnerability definition, exploit programming and attack deployment is moving at full speed. The prospects for a 2005 full of grief for users and IT are excellent.

In my 2005 predictions column not too long ago I noted that researchers told me that the prospects for new vulnerabilities and attacks in 2005 were rich, in spite of a bumper crop of them in December. Sad to say, it looks like they were right.

The first two weeks of 2005 have been insecure ones on the computing front, and almost no platform remains unsullied. Weve seen new vulnerabilities in Linux, Apples iTunes, SymbianOS cell phones, Gmail and a number of more obscure products. Ironically, we havent seen much in new holes in Windows, although existing holes have managed to get worse.

Whats even worse in a way is the newfound productivity of exploit writers. These are "researchers" who do us all the favor of taking theoretical vulnerabilities, writing code to exploit them, and posting that code where anyone can get at it.

My instinct is to slap these people silly and call the cops on them, but thats not the answer. There is a theoretical case to be made for calling sites such as exploitwatch.org "research" facilities. And theres a difference between putting out an exploit for demonstrative purposes, including educating users of the vulnerable products, and putting out a worm.

Anyway, as I said, new exploits are rolling off the assembly line, and all three shifts are pumping out code. On the recent entries in exploitwatch.org we can find attacks against Windows, Veritas backup software, IIS and Webmin (a Web-based interface for system administration for Unix). Also fresh this year are attacks against Norton Antivirus, phpBB, Soldner Secret Wars (some kind of war game) and QWikiwiki.

Hey, wait a minute: K-Otik has just released a proof-of-concept exploit for a Linux kernel i386 SMP race condition. Wonderful.

These exploits are the raw material behind the worms and cracks of the future, both near and far. A good example is the new Winxor worm. An otherwise mundane attack indistinguishable from a hundred others, one avenue it uses for spreading is the WINS vulnerability patched by Microsoft in December. Winxor is not a public threat yet, but it portends trends in future ones.


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Of course exploits are also useful for methodical users and administrators who want to confirm that patches they apply are working. By testing the exploit against your system before and after the patch, you can confirm its efficacy and have better assurance that attacks, which are usually based on publicly available exploits, will be ineffective against you.

And wed all better start getting methodical if were going to survive 2005. More than ever youre going to have to be on top of these matters, applying fixes and watching for intrusions. The exploits of 2005 will make 2004 look like a picnic.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.


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