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The Right Stuff

Statistics, they’re everywhere, the plankton that feeds the voracious appetite of the Internet. Being an aviation historian, I was fascinated to stumble across a Website, last week, where one person is devoting his energy to recording the scores of every ranking fighter pilot of the Second World War, Allied and Axis.

What surprised me is that the top one hundred German aces were, between them, responsible for the loss of fifteen-thousand allied aircraft and this statistic, sparked a comparison in my mind with the results of the latest Symantec Internet Threat Report, which, for the first time, consolidates data from the company’s recent acquisition of RipTech and SecurityFocus.

The report, which is quite possibly one of the most detailed the industry has yet seen, illustrates how Internet threats have intensified and evolved in many ways, while remaining relatively stable along other criteria. Although the number of overall attacks decreased last year the overall number of vulnerabilities rose alarmingly. Symantec documented 2,524 new vulnerabilities in 2002, up a whopping 81.5 per cent from the previous year, which was bad enough in its own right.

The report argues that despite this decline, many organizations, such as those in the financial services sector, experienced a sharp rise in attack volume and relative attack severity, while other companies, such as tenured security monitoring clients, substantially reduced their risk profile. Attack volume by country of origin was mostly consistent with past studies. 80% of attacks were launched from systems located in only 10 countries, and the United States was by far the largest source of attacks.

Approximately 60% of the documented vulnerabilities were easily exploitable either because sophisticated tools were widely available for use by the ‘wannabe hacker’ community’ or because exploit tools were not required at all. As you might expect from this news and by leveraging the vast supply of vulnerabilities, the more malicious of these ‘code weasels’ introduced several successful blended-threats over the past six months.

In the silent warfare of cyberspace, the potential for the introduction of entirely new, and potentially more destructive, forms of malicious code and cyber attack tools represent a substantial future risk to business. Ironically, a number of companies have fled to Open Source in the hope that this will offer better security, but Symantec reveal that a number of widely used open source applications were ‘trojanized’ with backdoors over the past year. The attacks targeted high profile distribution sites that had taken significant efforts to protect themselves. The report comments:

This may serve as a warning not only to other open source projects, but also to commercial software vendors. Rather than targeting individual systems, attackers are clearly exploring alternative ways of impacting a large number of systems in a short period of time”.

Certainly, like the 100 or so top Luftwaffe pilots of the Second World War, a relatively small percentage of exploits and vulnerabilities appears to account for a disproportionate amount of damage to Enterprise business across the globe and more than a few big companies have gone spiralling down in flames as a consequence of poor patching.

One interesting comment on the problem of constant patching arrived from a reader last week, who, in the light of Slammer, commented:

“Apathy may be the cause of a certain percentage of the unpatched SQL Server boxes. However, IT understaffing and fear of managerial reprisals for patching a production SQL Server installation and taking it out of commission are more likely to be the culprits for Slammer infections.”

It all rather sounds to me like the modern equivalent of Bomber Command stripping the armour plating from our Lancaster bombers in the last war. The lessons of history never stop repeating themselves but human nature remains sadly very much the same and Symantec’s research clearly shows where we should be placing our defensive efforts in future.


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