Software Code Sandboxes a Bright Spot as Security Flaws Trend Higher

While major software makers have tamed many of the vulnerabilities in their software, disclosed code flaws will peak in 2012, IBM finds in its latest report. Yet technologies for making exploitation harder, such as sandboxing, are paying off.

Vulnerability disclosures are on a trajectory to hit an all-time high this year, driven by a resurgence of cross-site scripting issues, making technologies that hinder exploitation increasingly important, IBM stated in a report released Sept. 20.

While the number of vulnerabilities found in major products has declined, thanks to the adoption of secure development methods, the total number of flaws likely to be reported in 2012 will near 9,000, exceeding the previous record set in 2010, according to IBM's X-Force 2012 Mid-Year Trend and Risk Report. Web vulnerabilities account for 47 percent of the 4,400 flaws found in the first half of 2012, and more than half of those Web flaws are cross-site scripting vulnerabilities.

While cross-site scripting has taken off, attempts to access back-end databases by exploiting a Web application-known as SQL injection-continues to grow as well.

"SQL injection is still the money maker for the bad guys," said Clinton McFadden, senior operations manager for IBM X-Force Research and Development. "It has been the Wild West for people doing SQL injection for many years. Yet now we are seeing a strong group of tools or Web scanners or education leveling off the worst epidemic in Web application security."

While vulnerabilities are on the rise, there are a number of bright spots, the 105-page report found. Security issues in popular file formats, such as Microsoft Office and the Portable Document Format (PDF), have declined sharply, while serious vulnerabilities in the major browsers have eased as well.

Much of the decline is due to fewer vulnerabilities being reported in major products. The top 10 vendors accounted for 22 percent of the vulnerabilities reported in the first half of 2012, down from 30 percent in 2011. Training developers to create secure code and investing in tools to help identify defects has likely helped reduce the number of flaws, McFadden said.

"The chart is more than compelling, showing that if I invest in a pure security feature, I can get a large payoff," he said. "My product will be targeted less, and there will be less research on the bad guys' side and customers will be safer when using my product for business."

In addition, efforts to make exploitation harder also seem to be paying off. The fraction of vulnerabilities that have been publicly exploited has declined to 9.7 percent, the lowest level since 2006.

"The decline in publicly available exploits is a direct result of architectural changes that have been made in software over the past few years that make exploiting these vulnerabilities more challenging," the report stated.

A key technology for limiting exploitation is restricting an application from accessing other resources on the computer, a technique known as sandboxing. Microsoft, Google, Adobe and Apple have all implemented sandboxing to some extent in their products, making it harder and less profitable for attackers to try and exploit vulnerabilities in the companies' software.

"It's one of those high-five moments," McFadden said.

The report also found that mobile malware continues to grow but remains a nascent threat, while attacks on the Mac OS X operating system have become more worrisome.

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...