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.

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