Australia’s peak security body for government, the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD), has urged the nation’s agencies to move off older PDF readers, which attackers are hammering to gain access to agency networks.
Ensuring updated software was second on the DSD’s recent “Top four” security check list that would help block 85 per cent of attacks on Windows environments in government. However, it appears enough agencies are not following that advice for the DSD to issue specific advice for PDF readers, in particular Adobe Reader.
Despite well-document security risks of running older versions of highly-attacked software such as Adobe Reader, the DSD says it continues to find “many agencies running older versions of PDF readers, placing themselves at greater risk of compromise”.
Socially engineered emails were behind 80 per cent of the “known intrusion methods” used in cyber security incidents the DSD’s Cyber Security Operations Centre (CSOC) has investigated so far in 2012.
Of these email attacks, a third contained PDF attachments, it said. The appeal of PDF attacks is that agencies are almost guaranteed to be running a PDF reader and in many cases that will be Adobe.
“Adobe Reader vulnerabilities are a popular way of compromising agency networks because agencies rely heavily on PDF documents to conduct their business, including as email attachments which users often open by default,” said the DSD.
The DSD urged agencies that run Adobe Reader to move to its latest version XI, which offers the Protected Mode security feature Adobe introduced in Reader X.
Protected Mode makes it more difficult to exploit vulnerabilities in Adobe Reader by displaying a PDF in a “sandbox” container and preventing malware being written on to a targeted system.
“To carry out a successful cyber intrusion, a malicious cyber actor would first have to exploit a vulnerability in Adobe Reader, and then use another exploit to escape the sandbox,” the advisory note explains.
In October, Adobe announced it had not found any exploits in the wild that escaped the sandbox. However, last week a Russian security firm claimed to have discovered a zero day flaw and exploit that achieved this.
Adobe is yet to confirm the zero day vulnerability.