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Cyber Threats Accelerate: 94% of Web Browser Exploits Occur Within 24 Hours of Disclosure

Today X-Force, IBM's security research and development arm, released its 2008 Midyear Trend Statistics report that indicates cyber-criminals are adopting new automation techniques and strategies that allow them to exploit vulnerabilities much faster than ever before. The new tools are being implemented on the Internet by organized criminal elements, and at the same time public exploit code published by researchers are putting more systems, databases and ultimately, people at risk of compromise.



Vulnerability Disclosures in the First Half of Each Year
X-Force analyzed and documented 3534 vulnerabilities in the first half of 2008, up 5 percent from the first half of 2007, which slightly reverses the trend of declining disclosures that occurred at the end of 2008.

According to the X-Force report, 94 percent of all browser-related online exploits occurred within 24 hours of official vulnerability disclosure. These attacks, known-as "zero-day" exploits, are on the Internet before people even know they have a vulnerability that needs to be patched in their systems.

This phenomenon is being driven by sophisticated cyber-criminals' adoption and evolution of automated tools for creating and delivering exploit tools, as well as the lack of a set protocol for disclosing vulnerabilities in the research industry. The practice of disclosing exploit code along with a security advisory has been the accepted practice for many security researchers. However, according to the X-Force report, vulnerabilities disclosed by independent researchers are twice as likely to have zero-day exploit code published, calling into question how researchers practice vulnerability disclosure and signifying the need for a new standard in the industry.

"The two major themes in the first half of 2008 were acceleration and proliferation," said X-Force Operations Manager Kris Lamb. "We see a considerable acceleration in the time a vulnerability is disclosed to when it is exploited, with an accompanying proliferation of vulnerabilities overall. Without a unified process for disclosing vulnerabilities, the research industry runs the risk of actually fueling online criminal activity. There's a reason why X-Force doesn't publish exploit code for the vulnerabilities we have found, and perhaps it is time for others in our field to reconsider this practice."

Key findings from the X-Force report include:

  • Browser plug-ins are the newest target-of-choice. The threat landscape has evolved from the operating system to the Web browser to browser plug- ins. In the first six months of 2008, roughly 78 percent of web browser exploits targeted browser plug-ins.
  • One-off manual attacks are growing into massive automated attacks. More than half of all vulnerability disclosures were related to web server applications. Structured Query Language (SQL) injection vulnerabilities, in particular, jumped from 25 percent in 2007 to 41 percent of all web server application vulnerabilities in the first half of 2008, and corresponded with a rash of automated attacks that compromised servers in an effort to compromise more endpoint systems.
  • Spammers go back to basics. The complex spam of 2007 (image-based spam, file attachment spam, etc.) has almost disappeared and now spammers are using simple URL spam. This spam generally consists of a few simple words and a URL, making it difficult for spam filters to detect. Approximately 90 percent of spam is now URL spam.
  • Russia continues to be origin of most spam. Russia is responsible for 11 percent of the world's spam followed by Turkey with 8 percent and then the United States with 7.1 percent.
  • Online gamers are targets. As online games and virtual communities continue to gain popularity, they are becoming an enticing target for cyber- criminals. The X-Force report indicates that the top four password-stealing Trojans were all aimed at gamers. The goal is to steal gamers' virtual assets selling them for real money in online market places.
  • Financial institutions remain key targets for phishers. All but two of the top 20 phishing targets were financial institutions.
  • Secure virtualization grows in importance. Virtualization-related vulnerability disclosures have tripled since 2006 and are likely to increase as virtualized environments become more widespread.

To access the X-Force 2008 Mid-Year Trend Statistics Report click here.

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