The gap between software patched by IT departments and the applications cyber-criminals actually target is leaving organisations at a greater risk of attack.
And despite system administrators' efforts to keep Microsoft-supplied packages up to date, non-Redmond software is almost exclusively responsible for the growth in vulnerabilities.
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That's according to an annual study by Secunia, which was published on Tuesday.
The security biz reported that the share of third-party vulnerabilities on a typical employee's computer increased from 45 per cent in 2006 to 78 per cent in 2011 - leaving 12 per cent of the security bugs found in operating systems and 10 per cent in Microsoft code. Of 800 end-point vulnerabilities logged by Secunia last year, the Danish firm rated more than half as either "highly" or "extremely" critical.
Businesses need to review their patching strategy in order to place more emphasis of third-party application updates on end-points such as PCs, Secunia concludes.
These end-points are a top target for crooks because they often host valuable data but are frequently poorly protected. Desktop machines, for example, can have unpredictable usage patterns, making them especially difficult to defend and secure. The multiple updating mechanisms from different vendors is at least partially to blame for this problem.
These are not the vulnerable programs you are looking for
Corporate security strategies often fall down because they place an incorrect emphasis on business-critical programs that crooks seldom target. It's all very well having Windows desktops running fully patched builds of Internet Explorer or server farms running up-to-date versions of SAP but if PCs are running older installations of Adobe Acrobat then systems can easily become compromised by targeted attack. For example, it only takes one worker to open and view the attachment of a seemingly relevant email for cyber-crooks or cyber-spies to gain compromised access inside a corporate network.
"By not addressing errors in software installed on typical end-points, organisations and individuals are in effect leaving their ‘windows’ wide open for cyber-criminals to enter and compromise their most sensitive data," explained Stefan Frei, research analyst director at Secunia.
"The programs that an organisation perceives as top priorities to patch as opposed to the programs that cyber-criminals target are often vastly different," Frei added. "Many organisations will focus on patching the top layer – business-critical programs – only. Cyber-criminals, however, will target all programs and only need one vulnerable program to compromise the host."
Secunia cautions that the software vulnerability landscape tends to shift from year to year, so firms need to adopt agile strategies that can cope with shifting patching priorities. For a typical organisation with over 600 programs installed in their network, more than 50 per cent of the programs that are vulnerable in one year will not be vulnerable the next year. So simply patching a static set of preferred programs can leave organisations hopelessly ill-defended against hacker attack, Secunia warns.
"Optimal risk reduction with limited resources" can be best achieved with an agile, dynamic patching strategy, it advises.
Despite the media focus on zero-day flaws - bugs discovered and exploited where no immediate fix is available - the majority of attacks tend to involve taking advantage of older flaws. Three quarters (72 per cent) of vulnerabilities had patches available on the day of vulnerability disclosure, according to Secunia. ®