After a period of steady decline that started in 2009, the number of application vulnerabilities has seen a significant increase during the first half of 2012, according to the latest version of Microsoft's SIR (Security Intelligence Report) that was released on Tuesday.
Exploits for security flaws in popular applications like Java and document readers were some of the exploits most commonly detected by Microsoft's security products during the same period.
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The new SIR volume 13 contains security analysis and intelligence for 105 countries for the period between January and June 2012, said Tim Rains, a director in Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing group.
According to the report, the number of vulnerabilities found in applications, excluding Web browsers, represent 70 percent of the total number of vulnerabilities disclosed during the first half of 2012.
"Vulnerability disclosures across the industry in 1H12 [first half of 2012] were up 11.3 percent from 2H11, and 4.8 percent from 1H11, mostly because of an increase in application vulnerability disclosures," Microsoft said in its report.
The number of disclosed browser vulnerabilities, which were counted separately, continued its upward trend and even exceeded the number of vulnerabilities reported in operating systems. The number of operating system vulnerabilities disclosed during this period hit its lowest level since 2003, according to the report.
The number of high-severity vulnerabilities increased overall during the first half of 2012 by 9.9 percent, almost reaching their level from the first half of 2011. This was the first increase of the number of high-severity vulnerabilities disclosed during a six-month period since at least 2009.
However, when assessing the threat posed by vulnerabilities, their severity is not the only aspect that counts. A vulnerability's complexity is also an important factor to take into consideration when determining the risk associated with it -- the lower the complexity, the bigger the threat.
"A total of 1,052 low-complexity vulnerabilities -- those that are the easiest to exploit -- were disclosed in 1H12, more than in any period since 1H10," Microsoft said in the report. "However, as a percentage of the total, low-complexity vulnerabilities accounted for 51.6 percent of all disclosures in 1H12, down from 55.3 percent in 2H11."
It's a known fact that attackers prefer to target vulnerabilities that are easy to exploit and which can be exploited with a high degree of reliability.
The statistics show that a lot of vulnerabilities disclosures out there are actually getting easier and easier to exploit, Rains said. "It's really important for software manufacturers to use security mitigations like ASLR, DEP, SEHOP and others so that if there are vulnerabilities in the product, it makes it harder for attackers to exploit them and it drives that access complexity number higher rather than lower."
The attackers' preference for application vulnerabilities was reflected in the exploit detection statistics compiled by Microsoft.