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Dealing with Widespread Security Failures

We probably don't need to spend too much time convincing you that security holes in software are common, and that you need to watch out for them. Nonetheless, many people do not realize how widespread a problem insecure software really is.

The December 2000 issue of The Industry Standard (a new economy business magazine) featured an article entitled "Asleep at the Wheel" by David Lake [Lake, 2000]. The article emphasized the magnitude of today's security problem using an excellent presentation of data. Using numbers derived from Bugtraq (a mailing list dedicated to reporting security vulnerabilities), Lake created Figure 1–1, which shows the number of new vulnerabilities reported monthly, from the start of 1998 until the end of September 2000. According to these data, the number of software holes being reported is growing. These figures suggest that approximately 20 new vulnerabilities in software are made public each week. Some of these vulnerabilities are found in source-available software programs, but many are also found in proprietary code. Similarly, both UNIX and Windows programs are well represented in such vulnerability data. For example, there were more than a dozen security problems found and fixed in Microsoft Outlook during the year 2000.

Figure 1–1 Bugtraq vulnerabilities by month from January 1998 to September 2000.

Additionally, "tried-and-true" software may not be as safe as one may think. Many vulnerabilities that have been discovered in software existed for months, years, and even decades before discovery, even when the source was available (see Chapter 4).

The consequences of security flaws vary. Consider that the goal of most malicious hackers is to "own" a networked computer (and note that most malicious attackers seem to break into computers simply because they can). Attacks tend to be either "remote" or "local." In a remote attack, a malicious attacker can break into a machine that is connected to the same network, usually through some flaw in the software. If the software is available through a firewall, then the firewall will be useless. In a local attack, a malicious user can gain additional privileges on a machine (usually administrative privileges). Most security experts agree that once an attacker has a foothold on your machine, it is incredibly difficult to keep them from getting administrative access. Operating systems and the privileged applications that are generally found in them constitute such a large and complex body of code that the presence of some security hole unknown to the masses (or at least the system administrator) is always likely.

Nonetheless, both kinds of problems are important, and it is important for companies that wish to be secure keep up with security vulnerabilities in software. There are several popular sources for vulnerability information, including Bugtraq, CERT advisories, and RISKS Digest.


The Bugtraq mailing list, administered by securityfocus.com, is an e-mail discussion list devoted to security issues. Many security vulnerabilities are first revealed on Bugtraq (which generates a large amount of traffic). The signal-to-noise ratio on Bugtraq is low, so reader discretion is advised. Nevertheless, this list is often the source of breaking security news and interesting technical discussion. Plenty of computer security reporters use Bugtraq as their primary source of information.

Bugtraq is famous for pioneering the principle of full disclosure, which is a debated notion that making full information about security vulnerabilities public will encourage vendors to fix such problems more quickly. This philosophy was driven by numerous documented cases of vendors downplaying security problems and refusing to fix them when they believed that few of their customers would find out about any problems.

If the signal-to-noise ratio on Bugtraq is too low for your tastes, the securityfocus.com Web site keeps good information on recent vulnerabilities.

CERT Advisories

The CERT Coordination Center ([CERT/CC], http://www.cert.org) is located at the Software Engineering Institute, a federally funded research and development center operated by Carnegie Mellon University. CERT/CC studies Internet security vulnerabilities, provides incident response services to sites that have been the victims of attack, and publishes a variety of security alerts.

Many people in the security community complain that CERT/CC announces problems much too late to be effective. For example, a problem in the TCP protocol was the subject of a CERT advisory released a decade after the flaw was first made public. Delays experienced in the past can largely be attributed to the (since-changed) policy of not publicizing an attack until patches were available. However, problems like the aforementioned TCP vulnerability are more likely attributed to the small size of CERT. CERT tends only to release advisories for significant problems. In this case, they reacted once the problem was being commonly exploited in the wild. The advantage of CERT/CC as a knowledge source is that they highlight attacks that are in actual use, and they ignore low-level malicious activity. This makes CERT a good source for making risk management decisions and for working on problems that really matter.

RISKS Digest

The RISKS Digest forum is a mailing list compiled by security guru Peter Neumann that covers all kinds of security, safety, and reliability risks introduced and exacerbated by technology. RISKS Digest is often among the first places that sophisticated attacks discovered by the security research community are announced. Most Java security attacks, for example, first appeared here. The preferred method for reading the RISKS Digest is through the Usenet News group comp.risks. However, for those without easy access to Usenet News, you can subscribe to the mailing list by sending a request to risks-request@CSL.SRI.COM.

These aren't the only sources for novel information, but they're certainly among the most popular. The biggest problem is that there are too many sources. To get the "big picture," one must sift through too much information. Often, administrators never learn of the existence of an important patch that should definitely be applied to their system. We don't really consider this problem the fault of the system administrator. As Bruce Schneier has said, blaming a system administrator for not keeping up with patches is blaming the victim. It is very much like saying, "You deserved to get mugged for being out alone in a bad neighborhood after midnight." Having to keep up with dozens of weekly reports announcing security vulnerabilities is a Herculean task that is also thankless. People don't see the payoff.

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