A major malware campaign using Stevens' tactics began Tuesday, with malicious PDFs attached to messages masquerading as instructions from companies' network administrators.
Microsoft also recently reported that PDF exploits remains a potent part of hackers' arsenals. In its newest Security Intelligence Report, Microsoft said that nearly half of all browser-based exploits in the second half of 2009 targeted Adobe's Reader. Three Reader vulnerabilities -- which were patched in May 2008, November 2008 and March 2009 -- accounted for more than 46 percent of all browser attacks.
McAfee rival Symantec has also tracked an explosion in PDF-based attacks. According to Symantec's latest Internet Security Threat Report, published last week, malicious PDFs were responsible for 49 percent of all Web-based attacks in all of 2009, compared to just 11 percent in 2008.
Like McAfee, Symantec also recorded a surge in reported Adobe Reader vulnerabilities. Of all browser plug-in bugs logged last year, 15 percent were in Reader's add-on for Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome and other Windows browsers. That was almost a four-fold increase from the 4 percent in 2008. And two of 2009's top five exploited vulnerabilities were in Adobe Reader.
Adobe declined to comment specifically about McAfee's and Microsoft's statistics on Reader vulnerabilities. Instead, a spokeswoman forwarded a statement the company has used before. "Given the relative ubiquity and cross-platform reach of many of our products, in particular our clients, Adobe has attracted -- and will likely continue to attract -- increasing attention from attackers," she said in an e-mail. "The majority of attacks we are seeing are exploiting software installations that are not up-to-date on the latest security updates."
The company's latest security move attempts to address the update issue; on April 13, Adobe switched on a service that silently updates customers' copies of Reader and Acrobat.
Adobe may be working on other ways to beef up Reader and Acrobat. According to one security researcher, Adobe will add sandboxing defenses to its PDF software this year. Sandboxing, perhaps best known as a technique used by Google's Chrome browser, isolates processes from each other and the rest of the machine, preventing or hindering malicious code from escaping an application to wreak havoc or infect the computer with malware.
Adobe has acknowledged it will add sandboxing to Flash -- another of its products that is frequently targeted by exploits -- and has it at the top of its to-do list, according to Paul Betlem, senior director of Flash Player engineering.
Reader may, or may not, get sandboxing as well. When asked about the reports that Reader 10 would include sandboxing defenses, a company spokeswoman said Adobe had no announced plans but was "investigating how to get different features to work in a sandbox."
McAfee's Dirro said adding sandboxing to Adobe Reader would be a smart move. "It's one of the most useful ways to address a lot of different vulnerabilities," he said. "Sandboxing had proven to be fairly efficient at stopping attacks."
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is email@example.com.
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