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Government releases top 20 vulnerability 'hit list'

By Dan Verton
October 3, 2002 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The U.S. General Services Administration, with the help of other federal and private-sector security organizations, yesterday unveiled a target list of the top 20 Internet security vulnerabilities, along with specific products and programs designed to help companies search out and destroy those flaws.

This is the third such list compiled in as many years by the Bethesda, Md.-based nonprofit SANS Institute Inc. and the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC). However, in addition to updating the list of vulnerabilities, this year marks the first time that security vendors offered product upgrades specifically targeting the vulnerabilities. In addition, the GSA announced its SafeGuard contracting program, which federal agencies can use to test for the Top 20 vulnerabilities and get technical help in removing them.

"This announcement raises awareness of the most critical vulnerabilities that affect everyone's information systems," said Sallie McDonald, assistant commissioner for Information Assurance and Critical Infrastructure Protection at the GSA's Federal Technology Service. "This will go a long way to help prevent more serious computer security incidents."

Each of the top 20 vulnerabilities stems from software that shipped with a set of one or more programming errors that, if left unfixed, allow hackers to gain remote control of systems.

Bill Murray, a spokesman for the NIPC, said the list is based on what's called the 80-20 model. "It's the 20 vulnerabilities that are causing about 80% of the serious intrusions," said Murray. "The important thing is that now we have vendors that will allow people to actually test for these vulnerabilities. In the past, companies have been on their own."

Although the last two versions of the top 20 list were successful in focusing attention on the most common security holes exploited by hackers, they failed to get the results that the SANS Institute and the other sponsors had hoped for, said Alan Paller, director of the institute. The lack of results was a byproduct of the lack of "commercial tools, and, even more importantly, commercial services, to allow people to focus on them," he said.

This year's list, however, comes with specific product upgrades from Foundstone Inc. and Internet Security Systems Inc. that target the new top 20 vulnerability list. In addition, Qualys Inc. announced a free online scanning service that looks for the top 20 vulnerabilities without installing new software on an organization's network. Likewise, free open-source scanning products were made available from The Nessus Organization, an online security scanner project, and Vienna, Va.-based Advanced Research Corp.

"For the first time, organizations that do not have big security staffs can get at the

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