Failure to patch leaves Cisco devices exposed, vulnerable

Dimension Data finds 73 percent of Cisco-dominated global companies had at least one known device security vulnerability that had yet to be patched

Large numbers of companies using Cisco network equipment are still vulnerable to a single security vulnerability flaw nearly two years after a patch was issued, an analysis of network scans by Dimension Data for its 2011 Network Barometer Report has found.

Overall, Dimension's Technology Lifecycle Management (TLM) assessment service discovered that an average of 73 percent of the 270 assessments it carried out on Cisco-dominated global companies had at least one known device security vulnerability that had yet to be patched. This held true for companies of all sizes and across all geographies.

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Surprisingly, a single prominent vulnerability, Cisco PSIRT (Cisco Product Security Incident Response Team) 109444, was found on 66 percent of the networks looked at, accounting for much of the security exposure it found.

PSIRT 10944 has been rated by the industry Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) as being between 6.4 and 7.8 out of 10 in terms of severity (which is to say, moderately critical), and capable of allowing an attacker to hit affected devices with a successful DDoS attack, said Dimension Data.

"To a hacker, a security vulnerability is equivalent to leaving one's front door unlocked," said Neil Campbell, Dimension Data's global security manager. "And attempting to exploit vulnerabilities is usually the first port of call when initiating an attack. That's because it may provide the hacker with full access to the device, which he could use as a launch pad to initiate further attacks internally."

The prominence of Cisco in Dimension's results is not surprising -- the company is a prominent Cisco reseller. The issue is more whether companies buying Cisco products are patching their systems rapidly enough.

"Patching is a difficult process for corporates. It is not something they have yet incorporated into their culture," said Campbell. Companies devoted most of their time to looking after vulnerabilities at the application layer, where most attacks occurred. Hardware vulnerabilities -- even well-known ones -- came further down the priority list, more so if they related to internal network devices seen as unrelated to security. "A vulnerability like this [PSIRT 109444] might exist for a year or more, or indefinitely," he said.

Overall, the number of vulnerabilities identified by Cisco has fallen to 45 in 2010 from a peak of 65 in 2007. According to Dimension, only 20 percent of devices looked at were vulnerable to a further four reported Cisco flaws, which suggests that this single flaw is perhaps the exception to the rule. The number of Cisco products that had passed "last day of support" had also declined year-on-year.

The findings hint at two apparently contradictory themes, that of uniformity and complexity.

The uniformity derives from the commoditization of IT equipment over the last decade, which has left companies of all sizes, in all countries and in all business sectors using similar families of products which are therefore open to the same vulnerabilities, including PSIRT 109444.

But within this apparent uniformity, complexity hides itself, often in ways companies are not fully aware of. For instance, in the 270 assessments carried out by Dimension, the average network was running 28 different versions of Cisco's router OS, IOS (Internetwork Operating System), with 11 assessments showing over 100 versions. Of the latter, Campbell said, "This speaks of a company that is not in control."

As networks have become more uniform around standards and more commoditized, vendors have responded by competing in terms of features and development, which has created more complexity within the product families of dominant vendors such as Cisco. As complexity rises, so do the problems associated with management. Dimension also found that many network devices looked at in its assessments suffered from a range of configuration and policy violation issues in ways connected to this theme.

The deeper problem was that many networks were simply now indefensible at the level of devices anyway, said Adrian Seccombe, representing the independent security think tank, The Jericho Forum.

"I can see the reason why organizations are in a pickle, as they are stuck between the two worlds, realizing that their networks are not secure and not having developed a security architecture that assumes that their networks are not secure," Seccombe said.

The Jericho Forum advocated a security concept called 'de-perimeterization' in which a network's security edge was where the application and data resided rather than where the physical devices happened to be.

"The fact is, that they [enterprises] believed the FUD that the older generation of security vendors spouted to keep them building ever higher firewalls and ever deeper, data leakage protection moats," he said.

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