Attackers pass on operating systems

Aim for drivers and apps instead


The disappearance of easy-to-find flaws in the major operating systems has pushed vulnerability researchers to branch out from finding security issues in core system software and instead concentrate on the device drivers and client-side agents present on all PCs, security experts said on Wednesday at the Black Hat Briefings.

During a presentation, two vulnerability researchers from security firm Matasano presented the results of their research on the common software agents included on many enterprise computer systems.

The two researchers, David Goldsmith and Thomas Ptacek, found numerous vulnerabilities in the agents designed to handle automatic updating, schedule backup tasks and handle support requests, the researchers said.

In another presentation, two other researchers - SecureWorks flaw finder David Maynor and graduate-student-cum-hacker "johnny cache" - showed off a method of compromising laptop computers via flaws in the wireless drivers. In a movie demonstrating the technique, the duo showed the attack compromising an Apple MacBook, allowing Maynor the ability to create and delete files on the desktop.

The two research projects underscore the move away from finding flaws in the operating system, Maynor said.

"Now that the OS layer is harder to crack, you are seeing a lot more people going higher up the stack, to applications, or lower, to device drivers," Maynor said.

The trend is not just evident at the Black Hat Briefings. Last year, Maynor investigated a variety of device drivers in Windows XP and Linux, finding numerous flaws. Other researchers have focused on Bluetooth drivers, in one case finding lax passwords allowed hackers to eavesdrop on the audio signals from passing cars.

Common applications and software agents are also garnering more attention. Flaw finders and attackers bent on industrial espionage have started focusing on discovering vulnerabilities in Microsoft Office. For the past 18 months, researchers have also focused on finding security issues in the antivirus clients that ironically are supposed to protect PCs from attacks. And, researcher HD Moore used data-fuzzing tools to find numerous flaws in the most common browsers used by web surfers.

Many of the vulnerabilities are easy to find and should have been caught by developers, if the companies had performed a basic security audit, said Matasano's Ptacek.

"The amazing thing is that the vulnerabilities we found were simple, they were 1993 vulnerabilities," he said. "These have clearly not been looked at before. We are talking straight-up stack overflows-the first thing that someone would test for if they were doing an audit."

Ptacek and Goldsmith found numerous simple vulnerabilities in the common applications included on many enterprise and consumer PCs to handle various automated maintenance chores. While the duo would not name the specific applications or the issues, they said they were common and pervasive.

"Your Dell is running five of these things," Ptacek said. "Your server is running five more. They are bots, helper bots, but they are just waiting to be taken over."


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