IBM’s X-Force is pushing for a reprioritization of security threats.
In its end-of-the-year Trend and Risks Report for 2008, released today, the X-Force contends that a key reason a number of critical vulnerabilities that caused alarm in the security community were not wildly exploited in 2008 was economics. Hackers focus first and foremost on threats they can monetize.
For this reason, the report states, the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) needs to make economic considerations part of its scoring formula, instead of focusing just on the technical aspects of a vulnerability.
“The CVSS provides an essential base that the security industry desperately needs to measure security threats,” said Kris Lamb, senior operations manager of X-Force Research and Development for IBM Internet Security Systems, in a statement. “But we also realize that cybercriminals are motivated by money, and we need to fully consider how attackers balance the economic opportunity of a vulnerability against the costs of exploitation.”
The report’s authors are quick to point out that IT departments should not ignore vulnerabilities just because they feel those vulnerabilities will not be widely popular with organized crime. However, a more careful consideration of the way that vulnerabilities fit into the business models of criminal organizations will help better prioritize IT protection and patching efforts, the report states.
“If the security industry can better understand the motivations of computer criminals, it can do a better job of determining when emergency patching is most needed in the face of immediate threats,” Lamb continued. “We can also be more precise about determining when widespread exploitation of a vulnerability will take a long time to emerge, and when it is unlikely to ever emerge. This analysis could result in more efficient use of time and resources.”
A prime example of this is a remote code execution vulnerability in the Microsoft Snapshot Viewer ActiveX Control that received a CVSS base score of 7.5. This bug was widely targeted, the report contends, because it was relatively easy to monetize and exploit.
“Vulnerabilities are frequently reported in ActiveX controls and attackers are used to incorporating exploits into Web exploit toolkits and using them to propagate spyware that collects financial credentials,” the report states. “So in this case, the exploitation cost was low and so was the monetization cost.
“The installed base was essentially infinite, since the attackers could push down the Microsoft-signed control to anyone that would allow it to be installed,” the report continues. “The bottom line is that a large revenue opportunity combined with a low monetization cost led to a large amount of exploitation that still shows no sign of slowing down.”
Changing How Threat Levels Are Judged
The idea of changing how the threat level of vulnerabilities are judged is not new. Microsoft, for example, altered its Patch Tuesday process last fall to include a new exploitability index as well as more information about the vulnerabilities being patched.
Overall, 2008 was a busy year for vulnerability researchers. According to the IBM report, there was a 13.5 percent increase in the number bugs discovered when compared with 2007. By the end of last year, 53 percent of all vulnerabilities disclosed during the year had no vendor-supplied patches, the report states. In addition, 44 percent of bugs from 2007 and 46 percent of vulnerabilities from 2006 still hadn’t been fixed.
The Web remains the biggest attack vector, with more than half of all vulnerabilities disclosed being related to Web applications. Of these, more than 74 percent had no patch, according to the report.
In addition to focusing on the browser and ActiveX controls, hackers were also found to be turning their attention to new types of exploits that link to Adobe Flash as well as PDF files and other documents.
The large-scale, automated SQL injection vulnerabilities that emerged in early 2008 continued unabated throughout the year. By the end of 2008, the volume of attacks jumped to 30 times the number of attacks initially seen this summer.
“The purpose of these automated attacks is to deceive and redirect Web surfers to Web browser exploit tool kits,” Lamb said. “This is one of the oldest forms of mass attack still in existence today. It is staggering that we still see SQL injection attacks in widespread use without adequate patching almost 10 years after they were first disclosed. Cyber-criminals target businesses because they provide an easy target to launch attacks against anyone that visits the Web.”