Researcher: Threats from zero-day exploits overhyped

Many people don't apply patches that are available for long-known vulnerabilities, which pose more of a threat

Computers lacking patches for long-known vulnerabilities potentially face more of a hacking risk than from zero-day exploits, or attacks targeting vulnerabilities that haven't been publicly disclosed, according to new research from Secunia.

Finding an unknown vulnerability and crafting an exploit requires advanced skills, said Stefan Frei, research analyst director at Denmark-based Secunia. Those type of exploits are highly valuable since no patch exists and can be sold on the black market.

However, there are plenty of software vulnerabilities for which patches have been engineered but never applied by users, in part due to the fractured way companies release patches. Targeting those vulnerabilities is much easier for hackers, Frei said.

"Even if a cybercriminal knows that a patch is available, that does not imply that the patch has been installed," Frei said.

For its latest study, Secunia gathered data from 3 million Windows XP computers running its Personal Software Inspector (PSI), a free product that scans a computer to find out if its software programs have up-to-date patches. PSI will automatically install patches for many programs if one is lacking the needed updates.

Secunia found some interesting changes in the vulnerability landscape compared to a few years ago. Of the top 50 programs on a typical Windows XP computer, 26 are made by Microsoft and the remainder from third-party vendors.

In 2006, some 55 percent of the vulnerabilities in those top 50 programs were in Microsoft's software or its operating system. But by 2010, Microsoft's share of total vulnerabilities fell to just 31 percent.

But overall the number of vulnerabilities in those top 50 programs rose from 225 in 2007 to 729 in 2010. That is due to a dramatic rise in problems found in with third-party software, according to Secunia's statistics.

Some of those most common programs were Adobe's Reader and Flash applications, the Firefox browser, Apple's QuickTime multimedia application and Java, Frei said.

Consumers often haven't applied patches since there is no universal tool for updating all software on a computer at the same time. Secunia said there are 14 different update mechanisms for those top 50 programs. But it has become somewhat easier since Microsoft, Adobe, Apple and Mozilla and some others will automatically deliver patches for their products if configured to do so.

Statistics show that Microsoft's update mechanism appears to have the most success. Secunia found that for the fourth quarter of 2010, only 2 percent of Microsoft programs were considered to be insecure on the computers they surveyed, while between 6 percent to 12 percent of third-party programs were insecure due to absent up-to-date patches.

For enterprises, patching all of their programs can be expensive and time-consuming since they have to ensure patches don't cause problems with other systems. But Frei said the only way consumers and companies can defend themselves is by patching.

"Zero day [threats] get the attention of many people, and there's not a lot we can do against zero days," Frei said. But for vulnerabilities that have been fixed, "patching is very effective to eliminate those risks."

Send news tips and comments to

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags secuniasecurityDesktop securityExploits / vulnerabilitiesdata protectionmalware

More about Adobe SystemsAppleMicrosoftMozillaPSISecunia

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Jeremy Kirk

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    IDG Live Webinar:The right collaboration strategy will help your business take flight

    Speakers - Mike Harris, Engineering Services Manager, Jetstar - Christopher Johnson, IT Director APAC, 20th Century Fox - Brent Maxwell, Director of Information Systems, THE ICONIC - IDG MC/Moderator Anthony Caruana

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts