Java Primary Cause of 91 Percent of Attacks: Cisco

Cisco's 2014 Annual Security Report points the blame at Oracle's Java for being a leading cause of security woes.

java main cause of attacks

There are many different risks and attacks that IT professionals had to deal with in 2013, but no one technology was more abused or more culpable that Java, according to Cisco's latest annual security report.

The Cisco 2014 Annual Security Report found that Java represented 91 percent of all Indicators of Compromise (IOCs) in 2013.

What that means is that the final payload in observed attacks was a Java exploit, Levi Gundert, technical lead, Cisco Threat Research, Analysis, and Communications (TRAC), explained to eWEEK.

The Java data comes into the Cisco threat report by way of the Sourcefire Vulnerability Research Team (VRT), which became part of Cisco in 2013 with the $2.7 billion acquisition of Sourcefire.

"I was surprised to see that the Java IOC number was 91 percent," Gundert said. "There were a number of Java zero days that were used in various attacks, but there were also a ton of well-known Java vulnerabilities that were packaged into various exploit packs."

Cisco isn't the only one that saw a high degree of Java exploit activity in 2013. Multiple vendors, including Hewlett-Packard and Kaspersky Lab, reported a surge in Java attacks during 2013. Just yesterday, Oracle updated Java yet again, this time for 51 vulnerabilities.

"2013 really was the year of Java exploits," Gundert said.

Java exploits tend to have great success because people simply just aren't patching it regularly, Gundert said.

Java is such a juicy target for the same reason it is popular with enterprises and developers: It's portable and works on any operating system.

The challenge is that, with a large Java application, patching isn't always easy, as there is always the potential that the patch could break functionality within the application, Gundert said.

"For business users, the challenge is more complex than just simply saying you need to patch," Gundert said.

Patching alone, however, isn't enough. There were a number of zero-day Java exploits in 2013—including an attack that affected the U.S. Department of Labor—that were actively being exploited, before any patch was available.

Aside from just not using or disabling Java, which isn't always an option for enterprise users, Gundert has a few suggestions. At the top of the list is a need for some form of behavior detection that monitors a user's chain of events before they land on an exploit.

"For example, is a user requesting a Web page that included obfuscated JavaScript, and is the user being redirected?" Gundert asked.

Most legitimate Websites will not use hidden or obfuscated JavaScript, and few will redirect users without authorization, he explained.

Overall 2013 Trends

While the use of Java is a highlight of the Cisco report, there are other key data points, including the fact that the overall number of threats rose by 14 percent on a year-over-year basis.

Another surprising finding is that among a sample of 30 large, multinational company networks taken by Cisco, 100 percent of them at some point in 2013 visited a Website that hosts malware.

"I was really surprised that the number was 100 percent," Gundert said. "It speaks to the fact that it's not about when an organization will be compromised; it's more about how long it will take an organization to detect a compromise and if the remediation window can be shortened."

Adding to the security challenges enterprises faced in 2013 is a human resources issue. Cisco's report claims that in 2014 there will be 1 million fewer security professionals available than what is needed.

"2013 was a bleak year, looking at the threat landscape," Gundert said. "Regardless of the tools that you have, if you don't have the right people in place, effective security is going to be very difficult."

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.