Is OpenOffice a bigger security risk than MS Office?

Potential security vulnerabilities not so suite

Although Microsoft Corp.'s Office suite is now being targeted by hackers, researchers at the French Ministry of Defense say users of the OpenOffice.org software may be at even greater risk from computer viruses.

"The general security of OpenOffice is insufficient," the researchers wrote in a paper titled "In-Depth Analysis of the Viral Threats With OpenOffice.org Documents."

"This suite is up to now still vulnerable to many potential malware attacks," they wrote.

The paper describes four proof-of-concept viruses that illustrate how maliciously encoded macros and templates could be created to compromise systems running the open-source software. "The viral hazard attached to OpenOffice.org is at least as high as that for the Microsoft Office suite, and even higher when considering some ... aspects," they wrote.

The report was written by researchers at the French Ministry of Defense's Signal Corps and is set to be published in the Journal in Computer Virology, a Paris-based academic journal for computer scientists.

A number of the problems described in the report are related to the basic design of the software. For example, OpenOffice.org does not perform adequate security checks on the software it runs, the researchers said. And because of the extreme flexibility of the free office suite, there are many ways for writers to create malicious macros, the researchers found.

The OpenOffice.org team has already fixed a software bug discovered by the French researchers, and the two groups are in discussions about how to improve the overall security of the software, said Louis Suarez-Potts, an OpenOffice.org community manager.

"The one real flaw in the programming logic has been fixed," Suarez-Potts said. "The others are theoretical."

OpenOffice.org has patched a number of vulnerabilities in the past few weeks, and Suarez-Potts said users should upgrade to the latest version.

These latest bugs show that the open-source project has some security work ahead of it, said Russ Cooper, a senior information security analyst at Cybertrust Inc. "If these types of vulnerabilities had been discovered in Microsoft Office, it would be front-page news," he said. "Whoever did the security for OpenOffice has totally ignored what Microsoft has gone through with the security of their own Office documents."

Attackers have exploited a number of bugs in Microsoft's Office applications of late, sending maliciously encoded Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents via e-mail to a small number of victims in extremely targeted attacks. On Tuesday, Microsoft patched the latest such flaws, which were related to PowerPoint.

Signal Corps researcher Eric Filiol has also discussed some of the team's OpenOffice.org findings during a conference presentation. His presentation slides are available online (download PDF).

Filiol declined to be interviewed for this story.

Peter Sayer in Paris contributed to this report.

From CIO: 8 Free Online Courses to Grow Your Tech Skills
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies