SANS Institute points spotlight at security problems

SANS claims that many zero-day attacks that target Microsoft products are initiated in China

In its annual review of the worst security problems spotted for the year, the SANS Institute Wednesday cited zero-day attacks and human gullibility in falling victim to phishing scams or other social engineering tricks as among the most dismal trends of 2006.

The annual SANS "Top 20 Internet Security Vulnerabilities," this year called the "Top 20 Attack Targets," were highlighted by SANS Institute representatives in an appearance today at Britain's security agency, the National Infrastructure Security Coordination Centre in London. The SANS Institute listed one of the worst problems this year as zero-day vulnerabilities and attacks that have gone beyond Microsoft Internet Explorer.

According to SANS, a zero-day vulnerability is a known flaw in software that does not have a patch available. SANS said 45 "serious and critical vulnerabilities were discovered in Microsoft office products alone" and among them nine were zero-day vulnerabilities in which an exploit or worm was actively making use of the flaw and no patch was available, the SANS report notes.

But it's not just Microsoft products at stake, says Rohit Dhamankar, editor of the SANS Top 20 report and senior manager of security research at TippingPoint, a division of 3Com. "The rise of zero-day attacks, at least 20 of them this year, also included Apple's Safari browser and wireless driver." But according to SANS, the focus of most zero-day attacks remains Microsoft products, particularly Internet Explorer.

The SANS report published today claims that many zero-day attacks that target Microsoft products are initiated in China.

"There are various theories about why China is such a hotbed for zero-day attacks, but most likely it is the fact that much of Microsoft's source code is available there with little intellectual property-rights restriction on distribution, the culture supports reverse-engineering of proprietary code and research into exploiting code vulnerabilities, and there are few enforcement investigations into the crews launching the attacks against targets in other countries," the SANS report states.

Other attack trends spotted by SANS this past year include growth in targeted attacks, such as "spear phishing" where an e-mail-based scam is perpetrated against an organization or individual.

"For the first time this year we're citing the human factor," said Dhamankar. "It might be secretary out front that gets 'spear phished' with mail that looks like it comes from the CIO or the security office but it doesn't. It's an attack to get sensitive information."

Other threats SANS is highlighting for 2006 include VOIP attacks, including the type to "make money by reselling minutes and potentially injecting misleading messages and even creating massive outages in the old phone network."

"The VOIP servers are interfacing with the traditional networks," Dhamankar points out. Attackers can get to circuit-switched networks via VOIP servers that could have vulnerabilities.

"By compromising a VOIP server, an attacker now has the ability to inject bad messages in the phone network," Dhamankar says, adding that the most disastrous consequence can be bringing down the old phone network.

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Ellen Messmer

Network World

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