Zero-day exploits take fun out of functionality

Popular applications and increasing functionality equal a growing threat to unsuspecting users

Last week, researchers at Symantec Corp. identified malicious code in Microsoft Office Excel 2007 spreadsheets that exploited a previously unknown vulnerability in the application. Opening the malicious spreadsheet drops a Trojan onto the system. This comes on the heels of a zero-day exploit discovered earlier in the month in PDF files that take advantage of a buffer-overflow vulnerability in several versions of Adobe Reader and Acrobat.

Antivirus signature files have been updated, and the vendors are working on fixes. Soon we will be downloading a few more megabytes of updates to protect ourselves from these vulnerabilities. There is no quick fix in site for the underlying problem.

“It’s the nature of the beast,” said Kevin Haley, director of Symantec Security Response. “Popular applications are going to be popular targets for bad guys. As we put in more functionality, they are going to be more of a target.”

It is tempting to suggest that a quick fix for these problems would be to just stop sending so many attachments. If you don’t send them to me, I won’t have to decide whether to open them. But of course, if we prohibit attachments, only outlaws will use them, and the problem would not really go away.

But it is tempting. Let me make one thing clear: I am not a Luddite. I like technology, and I use it. Information Technology has changed the world and made my work easier. But I sometimes resent that the rush to incorporate new functionality into applications before they have been adequately secured. It puts me at risk. I also am frustrated by so many people’s childlike fascination with things that move and make noise and who make use of every possible bell and whistle.

I recently received an invitation to an interesting event that I plan to attend, but I have reservations about the judgment of the organization that sent it. The invitation could easily have been conveyed in a few dozen words of text in the body of the e-mail. Instead, it was in a 1-megabyte PDF attachment that looked like a glossy marketing brochure. It was a waste of bandwidth to send it and an unnecessary risk to both parties: A risk to the sender that I would not open it, and a risk to me that upon opening it, it would contain some less-than-benign code. And don’t get me started on spreadsheets. I have yet to receive one with information that could not have been more effectively conveyed in plain text.

But I am not about the let software developers off the hook for their responsibility to produce sound, secure applications. These inconveniences are minor, and it would be unfair of me to put the responsibility for my IT security on the shoulders of those who want to e-mail me.

It would not be a bad idea, however, to be more cautious in the functionality that we adopt. Don’t send an attachment if you can write it in the body of an e-mail. Don’t feel obligated to upgrade to the latest version of every application for the sake of bells and whistles that are not necessary. Yes, new application versions also can correct old vulnerabilities and provide better security. But an even better approach would be to slow down the rate of adoption so that each version of an application can be more secure and sounder on day one, without immediately having to begin the cycle of patching and updating again.

I realize that software is never going to be perfect. But I would be glad to see it get a little better.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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Reader Comments

Wed, Mar 18, 2009 Mr Pedant

Technically 'the malicious spreadsheet drops a Trojan onto the system' is incorrect. In this instance the spreadsheet itself is the Trojan. The malicious code is hidden inside - think Trojan Horse given as a seemingly benign gift but containing the soldiers hidden within.

Mon, Mar 2, 2009 Clarence Mitchell Anchorage, AK

The last sentence in the second paragraph, the word "site" is wrong, should have been "sight" instead.

Mon, Mar 2, 2009 Chris Parente

Bill -- good article. Just use some common sense when sending attachments. And be able to write clearly helps!

Mon, Mar 2, 2009 pete

"with information that could not have been more effectively conveyed in plain text." My guess is that the marketers would argue that the pretty pictures are more effective. As for waiting, longer times to market won't make it more secure, just look at Windows 98. The real issue is that it is simply more cost-effective to send buggy and unsecure software to market and let the hackers and users do the 'security checks' for you. That won't change until the users or the legal system start holding the software companies responsible for poorly written code. Strong and generally secure code is now fairly easy, it just takes longer and so is more expensive in the short term. It also takes professional programmers who actually understand the code they write, not amateurs. Amateur coding without code review is for games and little one-off projects, not for enterprise business software.

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