Lack of Patching Remains a Top Security Risk, HP Report Finds

An HP security study shows that 44 percent of breaches could be attributed to patched vulnerabilities that were between 2 and 4 years old.

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poor patching

Organizations aren't properly patching their systems, according to the findings of Hewlett-Packard's 2015 Cyber Risk report, published Feb. 23. Drawing on data collected across HP's security teams in 2014, the study found that 44 percent of breaches could be attributed to patched vulnerabilities that were between 2 and 4 years old.

"We found it a bit surprising that these well-known vulnerabilities were—and are still—a threat," Jewel Timpe, manager of threat research for HP Security Research, told eWEEK.

Patching is hard for a number of reasons, Timpe explained. In the enterprise space, the volume of patches to apply across systems, while ensuring the patch doesn't break anything custom or internal to the business, is daunting and resource-heavy, she noted.

"It's a tough balancing act, but as we can see from this year's report, enterprises must find a way that makes patching the priority," Timpe said.

Vulnerabilities are ending up on the path to exploitation because, typically, when HP sees mass exploitation, it is due its inclusion in a kit, she said.

Exploit kits are packaged bundles of known exploits that attackers can leverage against victims.

Java-related exploits are an example of a class of patched vulnerabilities that continue to show up in HP's research. Java represented 48 percent of all Web or email exploit samples in 2014, HP's study found.

The Java exploits were all older vulnerabilities, Timpe said, adding that Brian Gorenc, manager of vulnerability research for HP Security reported the same basic finding at the 2014 BlackHat conference in Las Vegas. At the time, Gorenc reported that the majority of Java malware attacks were leveraging old vulnerabilities due to the lack of the Java updating that occurs.

In contrast, HP's report also notes that Oracle has made significant gains in 2014 in securing Java. The report noted that, in 2014, Oracle introduced click-to-play as a security measure, making the execution of unsigned Java more difficult. Oracle's click-to-play security measure had such a positive impact on Java security that HP stated that it did not encounter any serious Java zero-day flaws in the malware space in 2014.

"Attackers are going to take the path of least resistance to compromise their victims," Timpe said. "The simple action of having a user click-to-play unsigned Java introduced enough visibility to redirect attackers' focus onto targets that will allow for stealthier access."

Since the introduction of the click-to-play feature in Java, adversaries focused more on vulnerabilities in Microsoft Internet Explorer and Adobe Flash when they targeted potential victims, Timpe said.

History is repeating itself when it comes to security issues, Timpe said. "As an industry, we have not learned from the past and are letting old issues get the best of us," she said. "These issues are not new, and we know how to solve them, so why haven't we?"

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.