Java No Longer Such a Big Risk, Cisco Security Report Finds

Java vulnerabilities were down in 2014, but spam made a big comeback as the security arms race continues, according to Cisco's 2015 Annual Security Report.

Java malware

Cisco came out today with its 2015 Annual Security Report, showcasing the latest trends in information security. Among the surprising findings is a reversal of a trend that Cisco reported in 2014 about the prevalence of Java exploits.

In its 2014 Annual Security Report, Cisco reported that Java was the primary cause of 91 percent of all attacks. In the 2015 report, which tracks data from the 2014 calendar year, Cisco research tracked 19 urgent new Java vulnerabilities, down from 54 in 2013.

"There are still old Java exploits floating around, but the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) is continually being updated," Martin Roesch, chief architect of the security business group at Cisco, told eWEEK. "I suspect that many Java attacks are against the JVM, and the JVM quality is just getting better with better security."

Security vendors' constant reminders to users to update the JVM have likely helped to contribute to the drawdown in Java exploits, Roesch said.

"I wouldn't say to anyone to not run Java, but I would say to use it as necessary," he said. "It does have an attack surface and, like all software, there will be exploitable bugs in it, and users should evaluate use based on their own security posture and risk profile."


While Java seems to have improved over the last year, the Cisco report calls out Adobe Flash and PDF Reader, as well as Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE), as having the most application vulnerabilities and exploits. Adobe Flash and PDF Reader accounted for 19 percent of all observed attacks, while IE represented 31 percent of attacks.

"We have also noticed that IE is the least updated browser by user," Roesch said. "Only 10 percent of users are running the most current version."

Also included in the Cisco report are the results of the Cisco Security Capabilities Benchmark study, which surveyed 1,738 IT professionals. One of the study's most surprising findings was the lack of patching, according to Roesch. Only 38 percent of respondents had a regular patching and configuration management regime. He noted that the low level of patching is seen in the IE update numbers and also in high-profile security updates, including the OpenSSL Heartbleed vulnerability.

"Heartbleed was huge, yet 56 percent of OpenSSL versions that we see still have the vulnerability in them," Roesch said. "The most startling thing to me is that people know these vulnerabilities are out there and yet they have no process or discipline in getting them updated."


Another key finding in the Cisco report is that spam volume increased by 250 percent in 2014 over the prior year. One of the key drivers for the increase in spam in 2014 was the use of the so-called snowshoe spam technique. With snowshoe spam, messages are sent over many different IP addresses, each used in low volume, to avoid detection and filters.

"Attackers are innovative, and they figured out the snowshoe method and so far it is effective," Roesch said. "We continue to see an arms race in security that never slows down."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.