September 22, 2009, 11:25 AM — According to the SANS Institute, a prominent computer security company, it's your applications, not your operating system, that's probably putting you and your PC into the most danger from being attacked.
In its latest report, The Top Cyber Security Risks, based on data from over 9-million systems protected by TippingPoint intrusion prevention system, its your unpatched PC software that's most likely to give your computer a bad case of malware. The biggest targets aren't, as you might think, Web browsers or e-mail clients that work directly with the Internet. No, it's the applications like Adobe Flash and PDF Reader, Apple QuickTime, and Microsoft Office, that your Web browser or e-mail client call on to read or play media from the Web that's currently the real problem.
Here, says SANS writes, is how it works: "Waves of targeted email attacks, often called spear phishing [E-mail messages that look like they're real message from a trusted sender], are exploiting client-side vulnerabilities in commonly used programs. ... This is currently the primary initial infection vector used to compromise computers that have Internet access. Those same client-side vulnerabilities are exploited by attackers when users visit infected Web sites. Because the visitors feel safe downloading documents from the trusted sites, they are easily fooled into opening documents and music and video that exploit client-side vulnerabilities. Some exploits do not even require the user to open documents. Simply accessing an infected website is all that is needed to compromise the client software."
As usual, while the unpatched applications are the immediate problem, this is more of a Windows problem than it is for any other operating system. On Windows, it's simply much easier for an application that's been fed an infected file to spread the malware of the day to the rest of the PC.
That said, if you can stop the bug from hitting in the first place, whether you're running Windows, a Mac or Linux, you'll still be better off. The problem, as SANS points out is that even "On average, major organizations take at least twice as long to patch client-side vulnerabilities as they take to patch operating system vulnerabilities. In other words the highest priority risk is getting less attention than the lower priority risk."
In part that's because Microsoft, like everyone else, makes it easier to patch the operating system than the applications. That means that you need to stand up and make sure your applications are patched.