Security

The 5 essential patches of 2009

Fact: Everyone who patches is safer. Fact: Not everyone patches.

The gap between the two facts is too deep for even security experts to explain, although they try, with theories running from the conspiratorial — pirates hate to patch, they say, because they're afraid vendors, Microsoft mostly, will spy them out — to the prosaic … that people are, by nature, just lazy.

So rather than recite 2009's patch history — dismal as it was, with Microsoft, for instance, setting a record in October for the most updates and most flaws fixed in a single month — Computerworld thought it would be more useful to more users to simply spell out the year's five most important patches.

It wasn't our idea, really. We cribbed it from Qualys' chief technology officer, Wolfgang Kandek, who just last month dug into his company's data to come to an amazing conclusion: People running Microsoft Office could protect themselves against 71% of all attacks targeting the suite by applying just one patch, and a three-year-old patch at that.

With that kind of compensation for a single patch, one has to wonder what big-bang-for-the-buck patches were released in 2009. To find out, Computerworld polled a panel of patch and vulnerability experts to find the five security fixes everyone should deploy from the last 12 months.

If you roll out any updates from 2009, these are the ones.

Microsoft's ATL fixes, July and later. Last July, Microsoft rushed out a pair of updates to preempt a presentation at Black Hat that was to reveal a way for attackers to bypass the “kill-bit” defenses that Microsoft frequently deploys as a stop-gap measure for fixing bugs. That same day, Microsoft also admitted that an extraneous “&” character in its Active Template Library (ATL), a code library used by both Microsoft and third-party developers to build software, was the root of the bug.

“[MS09-035] was one of a handful released to address a flaw in the Active Template Library used to build ActiveX controls,” said HD Moore, the creator of Metasploit and chief security officer for security company Rapid7. “A bug in the private version of this library used by Microsoft resulted in a complete negation of all ActiveX security up to the point it was patched. We are still seeing patches come out, months later, as even more controls are identified as containing the buggy code.”

MS09-035 is a developers-only patch, aimed at third-party programmers who use Microsoft's popular Visual Studio to craft their own software. Developers needed to apply this patch to Visual Studio, then recompile their code to produce vulnerability-free programs.

But as Andrew Storms, director of security operations at nCircle Network Security, notes, there were plenty of ATL patches for end users to apply. “The Active Template Library coding flaw was one of the most serious and long-lived bugs this year,” said Storms. “This library is used everywhere throughout the Microsoft product line. In 2009 alone, they have had to release patches for their operating systems and popular applications including Office, IE, Visual Studio, Visio and Messenger, because of ATL bugs.”

This patch — or more accurately, patches, as Storms pointed out — came close to getting a unanimous nod as one of 2009's must-do updates.

Latest Adobe Reader patch, October. Qualys' Kandek nominated the most recent security update for Adobe's popular PDF viewer.

“The PDF format has seen heavy usage by attackers, [and] users consider it a serious and trusted format, unlike other media formats such as MP3 and movies,” said Kandek. “Attackers take advantage of the trust and exploit the security holes in the powerful processing capabilities embedded in PDF.”

Like security updates for many other programs — browsers come to mind — Adobe updates for Reader are cumulative, meaning that all that's necessary to stay as secure as possible is the newest version.

In October, Adobe patched 29 vulnerabilities in Reader, as well as the more expensive, more functional PDF editing application dubbed Acrobat, to bring the Windows, Mac and Linux versions up to 9.2. At least one of the 29 flaws was being exploited by the time Adobe got a patch out to users.

Kandek's certainly right about hackers leveraging PDF vulnerabilities. So far this year, criminals have beaten Adobe to the patch punch five times by launching attacks exploiting PDF bugs before those bugs were quashed.

The fifth “zero-day” vulnerability, in fact, was revealed just last week. According to some security companies, hackers have been using it in their attacks since at least Nov. 20. Adobe, however, has decided to roll the fix for the newest flaw into the security update slated for Jan. 12, rather than issue an emergency patch.

So although the October update is the one to get now, it will be out-of-date in just a few weeks. But then, that's security for you.

Microsoft .Net Framework. October. Both HD Moore of Rapid7 and Jason Miller, data and security team leader at Shavlik Technologies, pegged MS09-061, a three-patch October update, as one of the most important of the year.

“What makes these vulnerabilities important is how they cut through the sandbox model around .Net applications,” observed Moore. “These flaws would allow a malicious .Net application, an ASP .Net Web component or a Silverlight browser component to execute native code. Since a large portion of Microsoft's security strategy relies on the security of managed code, this is a major hit to their platform.”

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