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Cyber attacks shift to network devices, apps

By and , IDG News Service
November 22, 2005 08:56 AM ET

IDG News Service - After years of writing viruses and worms for operating systems and software running on Internet servers, hackers found some new areas to target in 2005, according to a report on security trends published Tuesday.
Over the past year, attackers have switched their focus to network devices and applications, specifically back-up software and even the security software designed to protect computers, according to the 2005 SANS Top 20 list of the most critical Internet security vulnerabilities, says Alan Paller, director of research with the SANS Institute, a training organization for computer security professionals.

“There has been a 90-degree turn in the way attackers are coming after you,” Paller says. Most organizations have adopted means to automatically patch vulnerabilities in operating systems, he says, but not in applications. “Those applications don’t have automated patching, so we’re back to the Stone Age.”

And by exploiting flaws in networking gear, hackers are finding their way onto corporate networks.

"Other, more sophisticated attackers, looking for new targets, found they could use vulnerabilities in network devices to set up listening posts where they could collect critical information that would get them into the sites they wanted," he added.

This new focus on client applications and networking products has happened because so many server-side and operating system bugs have been fixed, says Gerhard Eschelbeck, CTO and vice president of engineering with Qualys, and a contributor to this year's list. "A lot of the low-hanging fruit has been identified now," he says. "We really reached a tipping point earlier this year, where people started to look aggressively at client-side applications."

Security researchers also started looking at vulnerabilities in networking products, thanks in part to a controversial presentation by security researcher Michael Lynn at this year's Black Hat 2005 conference in Las Vegas. Cisco sued Lynn after he discussed security problems in the Internetwork Operating System (IOS) software that is used by Cisco's routers.

This is the first year that networking products have appeared on the SANS list, with Cisco vulnerabilities taking three of the 20 slots. The list also includes nine common application vulnerabilities, two Unix problems and six Windows issues, all of which "deserve immediate attention from security professionals," according to SANS.

One way to prevent such security flaws is to demand that vendors deliver hardened products to begin with, Paller says. For example, the The U.S. Air Force gave Microsoft a large sum of money to develop a secure version of Windows that is now running at two sites.

“The Air Force decided it couldn’t afford to keep buying broken software from Microsoft,” he says. “We think that action is the herald of what will one day… turn the tide, with the government leading by example. It doesn’t take much of that to turn vendors into security vendors.”

The SANS Top 20 list, published annually since 2000 (see last year's list ), is compiled by representatives from a variety of computer security organizations, including the U.S. Computer Emergency Response Team, the British Government's National Infrastructure Security Co-Ordination Centre and the SANS Internet Storm Center. The list is designed to give security professionals a quick sense of the industry's consensus on which commonly targeted security vulnerabilities require their most immediate attention. It has traditionally focused on Windows and Unix vulnerabilities, as well as problems with some server-side applications.

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