The Honeypot Project has added fuel to the debate over which is more secure—Linux or Windows—with findings that unpatched Linux systems can be on the Internet for months before being successfully attacked while Windows systems have been compromised in as little as hours.
The international non-profit security organization—with members from security companies like Foundstone Inc., Counterpane Internet Security Inc. and SecurityFocus—did not set out to show that Linux is more secure than Windows. Instead, the group set out to ask the question: “Why is no one hacking Linux anymore?”
To explore this question, Honeypot Project members set up 12 “honeynets” deployed in eight countries (the United States, India, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Greece, Portugal, Brazil and Germany). Data was collected during 2004, with most collected in the past six months. Each honeynet deployed a variety of Linux systems accessible from anywhere on the Internet.
A honeynet consists of two or more “honeypots.” A honeypot is a system that doesnt have any real work to do. Its sole purpose is to detect and track any interactions with it, since any such interactions can be assumed to be a probe, scan or attack.
Research honeynets are not advertised. Theyre housed anonymously on the Net so they wont attract would-be crackers. This is essential to maintain the integrity of the data they produce on what kind of attacks are currently prowling the Internet looking for non-updated systems.
In the case of The Honeypot Project Linux study, “A total of 24 unpatched Unix honeypots were deployed, of which 19 were Linux, primarily Red Hat.” Specifically, there were nine Red Hat 9.0, five Red Hat 7.3, two Fedora Core 1 and one each of Red Hat 7.2, SuSE 7.2 and 6.3 installations. In addition, the group deployed two Solaris SPARC 8, two Solaris SPARC 9 and one Free-BSD 4.4 system.
These unpatched honeypots were set up as severs with default settings and typical services set such as HTTPS (Secure HTTP), FTP and SMB (Server Message Block) with host-based firewalls that allowed inbound connections to these services. To make these systems more like those found in the real world, insecure or easily guessed passwords were used on several of them.
In addition to not being advertised, these honeynets were deliberately set up to be not especially attractive—i.e., home or small-business networks. In addition, they were not registered in DNS or on search engines so that “the systems were found by primarily random or automated means,” the report said.
In the 2004 run, the Honeynet Projects researchers found that “only four Linux honeypots (three RH 7.3 and one RH 9.0) and three Solaris honeypots were compromised. Two of the Linux systems were compromised by brute password guessing and not a specific vulnerability,” according to the report.
The organization found that “this life expectancy is all the more surprising when compared to vulnerable Win32 systems. Data from the Symantec Deepsight Threat Management System indicates a vulnerable Win32 system has life expectancy not measured in months, but merely hours.”
Indeed, according to the Internet Storm Center this summer, an unpatched Windows system connected to the Internet will last, on average, about 20 minutes before being compromised. In December 2004, the average time, according to ISCs Survival Time History, was up to just short of a half-hour.
That said, while “the limited number of Win32 honeypots we have deployed support this, several being compromised in mere minutes. However, we did have two Win32 honeypots in Brazil online for several months before being compromised by worms,” The Honeypot Project said.
Why the dramatic difference?
The researchers theorize that there are several possible explanations for both this and why Linux systems also became more secure in 2004.
The first is that Linux distributions have become harder to compromise because newer versions have more secure defaults with fewer services enabled, automatically running firewalls and so on. In addition, crackers have had more time to find the holes in older versions of Linux.
They also think that as all operating systems, both Windows and Linux, become more secure, there is a “growing trend toward social engineering, like phishing” attacks, which target users instead of systems.
Finally, the researchers believe that “based purely on economies of scale, attackers are targeting Win32-based systems and their users, as this demographic represents the largest percentage of install base.”
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