Researcher: Threats from zero-day exploits overhyped

Many people don't apply patches that are available for long-known vulnerabilities, which pose more of a threat

Computers lacking patches for long-known vulnerabilities potentially face more of a hacking risk than from zero-day exploits, or attacks targeting vulnerabilities that haven't been publicly disclosed, according to new research from Secunia.

Finding an unknown vulnerability and crafting an exploit requires advanced skills, said Stefan Frei, research analyst director at Denmark-based Secunia. Those type of exploits are highly valuable since no patch exists and can be sold on the black market.

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However, there are plenty of software vulnerabilities for which patches have been engineered but never applied by users, in part due to the fractured way companies release patches. Targeting those vulnerabilities is much easier for hackers, Frei said.

"Even if a cybercriminal knows that a patch is available, that does not imply that the patch has been installed," Frei said.

For its latest study, Secunia gathered data from 3 million Windows XP computers running its Personal Software Inspector (PSI), a free product that scans a computer to find out if its software programs have up-to-date patches. PSI will automatically install patches for many programs if one is lacking the needed updates.

Secunia found some interesting changes in the vulnerability landscape compared to a few years ago. Of the top 50 programs on a typical Windows XP computer, 26 are made by Microsoft and the remainder from third-party vendors.

In 2006, some 55 percent of the vulnerabilities in those top 50 programs were in Microsoft's software or its operating system. But by 2010, Microsoft's share of total vulnerabilities fell to just 31 percent.

But overall the number of vulnerabilities in those top 50 programs rose from 225 in 2007 to 729 in 2010. That is due to a dramatic rise in problems found in with third-party software, according to Secunia's statistics.

Some of those most common programs were Adobe's Reader and Flash applications, the Firefox browser, Apple's QuickTime multimedia application and Java, Frei said.

Consumers often haven't applied patches since there is no universal tool for updating all software on a computer at the same time. Secunia said there are 14 different update mechanisms for those top 50 programs. But it has become somewhat easier since Microsoft, Adobe, Apple and Mozilla and some others will automatically deliver patches for their products if configured to do so.

Statistics show that Microsoft's update mechanism appears to have the most success. Secunia found that for the fourth quarter of 2010, only 2 percent of Microsoft programs were considered to be insecure on the computers they surveyed, while between 6 percent to 12 percent of third-party programs were insecure due to absent up-to-date patches.

For enterprises, patching all of their programs can be expensive and time-consuming since they have to ensure patches don't cause problems with other systems. But Frei said the only way consumers and companies can defend themselves is by patching.

"Zero day [threats] get the attention of many people, and there's not a lot we can do against zero days," Frei said. But for vulnerabilities that have been fixed, "patching is very effective to eliminate those risks."

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com.

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