Web server attacks, poor app patching make for nasty mix

Jump in site hacks, lazy Adobe, Sun, Apple program patching to fuel online threats

A dangerous combination of a massive increase in Web server attacks and poor patching practices is a major cause of concern for experts, according to a report issued today by several security organizations.

In a groundbreaking study that matched attack trends with patching cycle data, some conclusions came as a shock, said Rohit Dhamankar, the director of security research at 3Com TippingPoint, which contributed real-world attack information -- acquired from its intrusion detection systems -- to the report.

"The sheer number of attacks against Web servers was surprising," said Dhamankar. "In terms of attack volume, they were almost 60% of all so far this year. Hackers are after a foothold in the corporate network, to conduct client-side attacks against visitors of the site, but also once they have that foothold, to gain much higher privileges and use those to also steal data."

Dhamankar pointed to the recent spread of malware from the New York Times Web site as a perfect example of the alarming increase in server attacks. Over the weekend, hackers duped the newspaper into using a malicious ad, which in turn tricked users into downloading and installing fake antivirus software. "The New York Times is a respected brand, and so it's a perfect avenue to infect lots and lots of users," he noted.

Some servers, once compromised, are even attacking other servers to pillage back-end information and to host malware fed to unsuspecting users, said Dhamankar.

The report -- which can be read on the SANS Institute's Web site -- correlated the high number of Web server attacks with another trend: poor patching practices by the Web's highest-profile third-party applications.

"Applications that are widely installed are not being patched at the same speed as the operating system," said Wolfgang Kandek, the chief technology officer of Qualys, which contributed its patching data to the study. "For Adobe Reader, Adobe Flash, Sun Java, Microsoft Office, Apple QuickTime, the patch cycles are much much slower than for operating system," he added.

That's a major problem.

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