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Unpatched PCs remain a threat

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An unpatched PC is a greater threat than any zero-day vulnerability.

Speaking at the Infosecurity Europe press conference, Stefan Frei, research analyst director at Secunia, said that the number of vulnerabilities had been relatively stable but high over the last few years, and that two vendors accounted for 20 per cent of all vulnerabilities.

He said: “The PC is increasingly targeted, you can protect the server as it is a static environment as it does not surf or install technologies but the endpoint is dynamic and you work with the data on desktop as that is where the data sits.”

Focusing on programs installed by PC users, Secunia research found that 50 per cent of users have more than 66 programs from over 22 vendors installed, what Frei called a 'big impact on how to protect your machine'.

He said that taking the top 50 most prevalent programs, 25 are from Microsoft, while 24 are from third parties from 14 different vendors.

In terms of the evolution of the vulnerability, he said that since 2007 the number of vulnerabilities affecting the Windows XP platform increased threefold to 729 by the end of 2010. “Most of the vulnerabilities are exploitable remotely, so who is responsible? When we analysed this we found that third party software is almost exclusively responsible for the trend,” he said.

In terms of how to protect against this problem, Frei said that the equation is: hosts x vulnerabilities x complexity = opportunity for cyber crime. Therefore users need to adjust their model.

He said: “Microsoft is less than two per cent insecure, while third party software is eight to 12 per cent insecure. The complexity to keep endpoints secure and install patches has a direct impact on your security level.

“If the cyber criminal sees that one batch gets detected then they release the next batch, so they are ahead of defence technologies. Malware is prevalent and can be used to pass anti-virus. A patch provides better protection than thousands of signatures as it eliminates the root cause, no matter how many variants, the vulnerability is patched so there is no way to get in and there is no reason not to act upon it.”

He concluded by saying that cyber criminals do not need a Microsoft vulnerability to attack a PC as they can work without them; they do not need a zero-day or to pay for it as there are plenty of opportunities by exploiting an unpatched PC.

“Patching is still seen as a secondary measure. I think we can do a lot more,” he said.

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