Remote Desktop Protocol security hole: 5 unanswered questions

The latest Windows vulnerability highlights potential security issues in every kind of organisation — even those that manage security itself

Whether the Windows Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) security vunerability will result in widespread Conficker- or Blaster-level mayhem remains to be seen. While we're waiting for the apocalypse, consider these questions.

  1. How many organisations are vulnerable, really?

    Security researcher Carsten Eiram from Secunia reportedly said we shouldn't worry because RDP isn't turned on by default, but it's a popular method of providing remote access.

    Dan Kaminsky has started scanning the internet and, based on the results so far, reckons there'd be 5 million vulnerable hosts. RDP is being run internally by 98 per cent of customers of penetration testing firm Hacklabs, and 30 per cent have it exposed to the internet.

  2. How many vulnerable organisations know they're vulnerable?

    For Casey Ellis of Tall Poppy Group, the key concern is the vast number of small and medium businesses who don't have internal IT staff. RDP is a key tool for external contractors.

    "Often it's just published out on the internet as a means for them to quickly and easily connect and do things that need to be done," he told CSO Online. Often it's done without the fact being recorded anywhere.

  3. How secure is the Microsoft Active Protections Program (MAPP)?

    MAPP is Microsoft's program for telling security vendors about new vulnerabilities well ahead of public disclosure so they can update their protections.

    The RDP vulnerability was discovered by Italian security researcher Luigi Auriemma. He passed it to the Zero Day Initiative, and from there it passed through Microsoft to MAPP member organisations.

    All 80-plus of them.

    And from somewhere in there it was leaked.

    Auriemma's proof-of-concept exploit code has turned up on a Chinese file server.

  4. Who knew about this vulnerability? For how long? What have they been doing with it?

    Auriemma found the bug on 16 May 2011. Through MAPP, hundreds of people have had this information for weeks, at the very least.

    "Any time a really interesting bug comes up, the people that find this always say they're very surprised that they're the first to find it. And quite often eventually it comes out that they weren't the first to find it, and that it had been known for quite some time," Hacklabs proprietor Chris Gatford told CSO Online.

    "You can't help but wonder, countries that have the Windows operating system source code, this to be honest would have stuck out like the proverbial," he said.

  5. How bad will things get? Will we get worms?

    While the RDP vulnerability certainly has the potential to be used as the basis for something larger, multi-layered defences are more widespread than just a few years ago.

    "Things like Conficker, things like Zeus, have given us a framework around how we begin to deconstruct these types of threats," Jonathan Nguyen-Duy, product management director for global security services at Verizon, told CSO Online.

    But Gatford believes that worm or not, this is the kind of vulnerability that will end up being exploited for years to come.

    "There's not a job that goes by that we still don't find — especially when we're inside internal systems — we're finding NT4 and Windows 2000 systems, and patching for those stopped years ago," he said.

Contact Stilgherrian at Stil@stilgherrian.com or follow him on Twitter at @stilgherrian

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