SANS Warns of Attack Shift to Apps, Network Devices

Critical holes in computer backup and antivirus applications, as well as switch and router platforms, are enabling a new wave of attacks that is shifting attention away from operating systems.

An increase in the number of holes in software applications and network devices like routers and switches is allowing malicious hackers to gain access to sensitive systems, including government and military systems, according to the SANS Institute.

SANS warned of the switch to attacks on applications and network devices in its annual publication of the Top 20 vulnerabilities on Tuesday. Critical holes in computer backup and antivirus applications, as well as switch and router platforms, are enabling a new wave of attacks that is shifting attention from holes in operating systems like Microsoft Corp.s Windows, Web and e-mail servers, SANS said. Software vulnerability scanning and better patching are the best way to address the holes, SANS said.

The annual SANS Top 20 highlights holes in software programs that are considered the most serious for security professionals. As in past years, the SANS Top 20 contains warnings about security holes in Windows and popular Internet applications like the Internet Explorer Web browser and Outlook Express e-mail program.

However, Microsoft shares the spotlight this year with Symantec Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., Oracle Corp. and others, after a year in which warnings about vulnerabilities in antivirus and computer backup software and the surprise publication of information on a hole in Cisco Systems IOS (Internetwork Operating System) made headlines.

Enterprises have been preoccupied with operating system and Internet threats and have ignored the threat posed by holes in software applications by major vendors, according to Alan Paller, director of research at SANS.

For example, computer backup systems are rich targets for attack because they collect sensitive information from other systems and also must be accessible to enterprise systems that they manage, said Paller.

The SANS Institutes Internet Storm Center recorded a sharp spike in Internet scans for systems running the Veritas BackupExec software, which is now sold by Symantec, after a crop of high-risk holes were announced in June, according to Johannes Ullrich, CTO of SANS ISC.

"Everybody needs to have access to the backup server to do backups. Its a critical service," he said.

Automated hacking tools that lowered the technical bar for attacking Web and e-mail servers have been modified to target applications, said Paller from London, where SANS was planning to announce the Top 20 list with representatives of the UKs NISCC (National Infrastructure Security Co-Ordination Center).

The stakes for patching holes in software are getting higher, SANS said.

"The business of stealing data for extortion and resale is a multibillion dollar business," Paller said.

Governments also have reason to take a close look at their networks for vulnerabilities in the operating systems that run desktop and server machines, as well as software applications, experts agree.

SANS, NISCC and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a dire warning about the impact of software vulnerabilities on national security.

Paller said that unknown enemies—possibly sponsored by states hostile to the U.S. —are conducting round-the-clock electronic attacks against companies and government Web sites to gather and transmit privileged information.

He cited coordinated "phishing" attacks that placed Trojan horse programs on systems owned by leading British companies and the U.K. government in June, and coordinated Chinese attacks on U.S. government computers, dubbed "Titan Rain," that netted military flight planning software as examples of widespread hacking of "devastating attacks that are being carried out against U.S. government and military contractor sites," SANS said.

Unlike worms and viruses, the new wave of malicious attacks are super stealthy and may lurk for months or years, only "waking up" to snatch sensitive information and send it back to those orchestrating the attack, said Paller.

Focusing on application security is nothing new at Morgan Stanley, said Lance Braunstein, executive director of technical operations.

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"You could be the most secure operation in the world, but if you have applications that were developed using bad coding practices, youre open to exposure," said Braunstein.

Enterprises that arent already doing so should be doing penetration testing and analysis of any applications running on their network. "The end of the security story isnt deploying a firewall. There are applications security practices you have to follow," Braunstein said.

Companies should act quickly to patch software vulnerabilities and remove "low hanging fruit" that can be exploited by organized online criminal groups and state-sponsored hackers, SANS said.

Enterprises should also invest in technology that can inventory software applications and spot vulnerabilities, Ullrich said.

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