Adobe: We know we're hackers' favorite target

But it's making the right moves to shut the door on attackers, say experts

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The revised updater, which Adobe switched on in April for Reader, has also had a big impact on security, Arkin contended. Although the new tool's silent updating made the most news -- currently, users must manually toggle that on -- revisions to its user interface and "update now" prompts have helped Reader's user base get the latest update much sooner than they typically would under the old update system.

"It seems to be working really well," said Arkin, who credited the revamped UI for the boost in updating speed.

"Our long-term goal is that eventually the majority of the [Reader] user base will have updating on automatic, but it's not going to happen overnight," Arkin said. At some point -- though not next month, when Adobe issues its regularly scheduled Reader security patches -- users will be prompted to switch to silent updating. Arkin declined to set a timeline for the prompting, saying Adobe is still working through the legalities associated with various countries' requirements on prompting language and default settings.

He also touted Adobe's faster response to zero-day vulnerabilities -- bugs that are disclosed and then exploited before a patch is available. "We've improved our processes so we can turn around [patches] faster," he claimed, citing three instances in 2009 when patches were issued within 15 days of a flaw going public.

If Adobe's situation sounds familiar, it should, security experts said: Adobe's essentially in the same place Microsoft was several years ago.

"It took the Code Red/Nimda damage to get Microsoft to move back then [in 2001]," said John Pescatore, a Gartner analyst who covers security for the research firm. "It has taken all the recent attacks compromising Adobe customers through Adobe software to get Adobe to move."

The Code Red and Nimda worms, which spread lightning-quick and infected millions of Windows PCs in 2001, are often given credit for making Microsoft wake up and smell the security coffee. Three years later, Microsoft delivered Windows XP Service Pack 2, a revamped version of the operating system that emphasized several major security features.

"What Adobe's experiencing now is what Microsoft went through years ago," echoed Andrew Storms, the director of security operations at nCircle Security. "From one perspective, Adobe can look at what Microsoft did and use it as a learning experience. On the other hand, so can everybody else. That's why Adobe is more susceptible to criticism, because they weren't the first to go through this. Someone else had stepped up and led the charge."

Both Pescatore and Storms agree that Adobe is taking the right steps, although the security efforts will take time to show results. "They're making major strides in security life-cycle work and in improving their response time," said Pescatore. "The company now seems to be emphasizing security and making it an important part of when they ship products. But they should be able to show results faster than did Microsoft, because they're not an operating system developer."

Even so, Adobe deserves the hammering it's gotten over security, he contends. "It's fair to criticize, because you shouldn't wait until your product causes your customers pain before you act. Every software company that doesn't practice proactive security deserves to be criticized."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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