Persistence of outdated JRE 6 helps Java dominate Web attacks: Cisco

Java continues to be the dominant attack vector for Web-based security exploits, facilitated by continuing enterprise use of the end-of-life and highly-compromised Java 6 platform, Cisco Systems has warned in its 2014 Annual Security Report.

The report, compiled with data from both Cisco and the FireAMP online monitoring tool of its recently-acquired security specialist firm Sourcefire, found that Java exploits account for 91 percent of Web-based threats – eclipsing the threat posed by other vectors such as PDF files (3 per cent) and Microsoft Excel spreadsheets (3 per cent), Word documents (2 per cent) and PowerPoint files (1 per cent).

Even where exploits are built to cascade between different attack vectors, Java is typically the first that malware authors choose, the report noted, because of the ubiquity of Java makes it an attack surface “that is too big for criminals to ignore”.

The size of the attack surface is also being maintained thanks to the continuing use of Java Runtime Environment (JRE) version 6, which was long ago superseded by the JRE 7 that is now found in 90 per cent of enterprises.

However, despite installing the newer and more-secure version, 76 per cent of enterprises are continuing to use JRE 6 as well – generally to ensure compatibility with applications that may not have been updated to support the new environment.

“With more than three-fourths of the enterprises surveyed by Cisco using an end-of-life solution with vulnerabilities that may never be patched publicly, criminals have ample opportunity to exploit weaknesses,” the report's authors warn.

The persistence of Java vulnerabilities helped contribute to steady growth in the overall volume of security alerts seen during 2013, which increased 14 per cent year on year compared with 2012 according to Cisco's ongoing monitoring efforts.

Oracle and independent security researchers have been working full time to keep up with the discovery of new Java flaws, with new zero-day exploits regularly discovered, new exploits being added to exploit kits as quickly as they're discovered, and Oracle regularly offering dozens of patches to fix discovered security problems.

It's not just the presence of Java alone opening users to attack, however: Cisco's figures suggest particular types of companies are particularly vulnerable to targeting by cyber criminals, with electronics manufacturers, agricultural and mining companies being hit by malware six times as frequently as other vertical industries.

Cisco also noted an increase in 'watering hole' attacks targeting specific industry-related Web sites, and saw indicators suggesting many network compromises remain undetected for long periods of time. Buffer errors were the most common type of threat, comprising 21 percent of attacks.

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