Companies still dragging their feet with patches

Health-care companies and the manufacturing industry rank at the bottom of patching exploits

A study from security vendor Qualys has found that companies are patching just a hair faster than they were five years ago.

Qualys has conducted a research project for the last six years in which it collects data on software vulnerabilities from its customers' computers. Qualys provides Web-based services that can detect vulnerabilities in software, Web applications and can also perform compliance audits.

The latest data was collected throughout 2008, said Wolfgang Kandek, Qualys' CTO. Qualys scanned 80 million IP (Internet Protocol) addresses using 200 scanners that looked at Internet-facing PCs and 5,000 internal scanners behind firewalls on company intranets.

Kandek said 680 million vulnerabilities were found, with 72 million constituting critical ones, meaning the software problem could allow a hacker to take control of a computer remotely and install malicious software.

Qualys has created its own measurement, called "half life," for how fast companies patch. The measurement is the number of days it takes a companies in a certain industry to patch 50 percent of the vulnerabilities that have been publicly released.

The figures have barely changed since Qualys released its last study in 2004. Then, it took an average of 30 days to hit the half-patched mark. For 2008, that figure has only moved up to 29.5 days, Kandek said.

"The patch cycle hasn't really accelerated," Kandek said during the InfoSecurity conference on Tuesday in London.

By industry, the figures vary: The service sector takes 21 days; finance industry, 23 days; and wholesale and retail, 24 days. The laggards are the health industry at 38 days and manufacturing at 51 days.

The problem with putting off patching is that hackers are creating exploits faster than companies are patching them, Kandek said. "The attackers are getting much faster than before," he said.

Of the 21 fixes issues by Microsoft on Patch Tuesday this month, exploits for 10 of those problems were already in circulation, Kandek said.

Computer administrators also take too long to patch what should be higher-priority applications, such as Web browsers, Kandek said.

Also, long-known vulnerabilities in software including Microsoft Office, Adobe System's Acrobat and Microsoft's Windows Server 2003 SP2 continue to be found on systems after patches are available, Kandek said.

Adobe Acrobat seems to be particularly low on the patch list. That's dangerous since hackers have created malicious PDF (portable document format) files that can exploit vulnerabilities and infect a computer. Acrobat can be a "major source of malware infections."

"We have to patch these vulnerabilities as soon as possible," Kandek said.

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