A pair of phishing vulnerabilities this week targeted at Google Inc. point to the kind of new threat Web companies can face as they expand their services into desktop applications, security experts say.
But the potential attacks didnt stop there, according to security and analyst firm Netcraft Ltd. They also could extend to gathering information from users using the recently released Google Desktop Search application, which indexes hard-drive files, e-mails, chat sessions and Web history and can display them along with Web results.
Google confirmed Thursday that it had fixed one of the vulnerabilities, and Netcraft on Friday said Google also had fixed a second, similar flaw. Google officials didnt return requests for comment for this story.
While the vulnerabilities may be gone for now, they are not unique to Mountain View, Calif.-based Google. Google is among leading Web companies that have increasingly expanded their core services. Companies such as Yahoo Inc., Amazon.com Inc and eBay Inc. have either released lightweight desktop applications—from browser-based toolbars to desktop companions—or opened their services to developers of desktop clients.
As they extend their reach to desktop applications, Internet companies are opening themselves to more malicious attacks, given the tenacity of attackers and the increased complexity of their services, said Ken Dunham, director of malicious code at iDefense Inc., a Reston, Va., security intelligence company.
“The more options and software you provide, then its more likely that new avenues for exploitation will be introduced,” Dunham said. “If someone wants to get into your house real bad, they can. Your job is to make sure yours is less likely to be attacked and robbed.”
The potential for new vulnerabilities does not mean Web companies should stay stagnant, but rather that they must ensure that they conduct as much due diligence as possible to avoid programming errors and that they respond to threats, Dunham said.
Major online players by their nature expose themselves to attackers, and none is likely to be vulnerability-free.
“With all online applications, they have built-in vulnerabilities and over time, given the diligence of the hacker community, [attackers] will discover them,” said Richard Stiennon, vice president of threat research at Boulder, Colo.-based Webroot Software Inc, which makes Internet security tools.
“I dont think you can say that its out of the ordinary for the big, popular services to write in vulnerabilities, but its going to become more a part of Googles experience as it becomes more predominant in its space and develops desktop applications,” he said.
Google, for example, has increasingly added desktop complements to its search service. Along with the beta test of Google Desktop Search, it offers a Google toolbar for Internet Explorer and a Windows download called Google Deskbar for initiating Web searches outside of the browser.
The phishing vulnerabilities disclosed this week gained widespread attention, partly because Google has remained out of the security limelight. But the companys search toolbar has appeared on security bulletins before.
Late last month, the SecurityTracker.com list reported that the Google Toolbar could be used to execute arbitrary code.
Phishing has become a widespread problem for many of largest online services, such as eBay, and online financial service companies as attackers spoof corporate domains to lure consumers to malicious sites that appear legitimate.
Even Google rival Yahoo, by offering an instant-messaging client, has found itself battling security vulnerabilities. It also appears likely to offer more desktop applications. Earlier this week, for example, it acquired a desktop e-mail client with its purchase of Stata Laboratories Inc.
Ironically, as the major Internet companies gain a foothold on the desktop, they could find themselves under the kind of security spotlight that shines on software makers such as Microsoft Corp., security analysts said.
While much of the responsibility for security holes affecting Web sites can be traced to the Web browser, the same is not true for desktop applications, said Dan Hubbard, senior director of security research and technology at Websense Inc., a San Diego-based maker of employee Internet management software.
More and more desktop applications, especially those from Web companies, also are connecting to the Web and circumventing traditional firewalls by making use of ports 80 and 443, he said.
“Anytime that an application, no matter who creates the applications, has access to port 80 on your machine and access to a Web front end, then this can lead to [security] situations,” Hubbard said. “Anytime you write an application that is going to be running on the desktop, you have to secure that application more than a Web services application.”
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