Top Cyber-Threats Tied to Application Patching Process

A new report from the SANS Institute, Qualys and TippingPoint underscores the fact that while the number of zero-day bugs is growing, the bigger threat comes from popular client-side applications such as Apple QuickTime and Adobe Reader.

IT security has less to do with bracing for the inevitable zero-day vulnerability than some outside the industry may think.

Truth be told, the biggest threats facing users and organizations today are unpatched client-side applications and unsecure Web programs - that is the message of a sweeping study undertaken by Qualys, TippingPoint and the SANS Institute.

The study, which was released today, covered a period from March to August and included data from some 15,000 organizations. What the researchers found should not surprise many - unpatched applications are the biggest enemy to IT security.

Vulnerabilities in client-side apps such as Adobe Reader and Apple QuickTime now outpace bugs in operating systems, and recent research has shown continually that users are not always keeping up-to-date with the latest patches. For example, an Apple QuickTime flaw patched in January was the subject of 72 percent of the exploits targeting Apple vulnerabilities between March and August. In addition, four of the Top 30 vulnerabilities mentioned in the report are issues in Adobe Flash Player that date as far back as 2007.

"Organizations that partition their applications into different sets according to business criticality have been able to patch faster and reduce their risk exposure," said Wolfgang Kandek, CTO of Qualys. "Typically organizations classify applications such as Adobe Reader and Microsoft PowerPoint into the faster patching category."

Typically, organizations are afraid to break mission-critical applications. This is a valid concern for applications like Microsoft Excel, where additional testing is warranted, Kandek said.

Further complicating matters is that many people write their own applications. These custom apps can lead to exploitable vulnerabilities if there is no sound processes for testing and deploying the applications securely, noted Rohit Dhamankar, director of security research for TippingPoint.

"The OS vendors have known about security problems for quite some time now," he said. "Hence, the internal testing, processes and research by OS vendors have dramatically improved in the last few years."

The operating system vendors such as Microsoft and Apple have structured processes for identifying and patching vulnerabilities, Kandek noted. These processes are still immature on the application side and split amongst multiple vendors, he said.

"On a positive note, we have seen application vendors respond, they are creating structured program to test and release patches and inform the public - see Adobe's effort as a perfect example," Kandek added.

Still, the researchers noted there has been a significant increase over the past three years in the number of people discovering zero-day vulnerabilities - some of which have remained unpatched for as long as two years. On a positive note, however, the paper states that: "A large decline in the number of 'PHP File Include' attacks appears to reflect improved processes used by application developers, system administrators and other security professionals."

So the news isn't all bad, but it does underscore that both users and vendors have some work to do when it comes to ensuring application vulnerabilities get addressed.

"From a vendor standpoint, we can scream from the mountains about how important patching is -- but if an organization is overwhelmed and understaffed some patching might fall down the priority list," Dhamankar said. "As security researchers (as well as vendors), I think we really should be doing a better job of helping these organizations prioritize their security needs and this report should help them do that."