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Windows exploits: Data finds Windows Vista infections outpace Windows XP

When Microsoft issued version 12 of its Security Intelligence Report (.pdf) last month, its marketing machine had one message it wanted journalists to communicate to businesses: Conficker worm infections are a serious concern.

The messaging about Conficker was extremely strong. Prior to a briefing with a Microsoft executive, reporters were given a slide deck largely void of information except for data about Conficker; Microsoft’s 126-page report had been boiled down to 16 slides. Microsoft proclaimed Conficker as “the No. 1 threat facing businesses over the past 2.5 years.” It was “detected on 1.7 million machines in the fourth quarter of 2011; it was “detected almost 220 million times since 2009;” and there has been a 225% increase in quarterly detections since 2009, Microsoft said.

It sounds alarming, but that’s just marketing at its worst.

Conficker has no payload. There are no cybercriminals controlling it. The worm itself was designed to spread quickly to establish the infrastructure for a botnet. Once it’s installed on an infected machine it opens connections to receive instructions from a remote server. But that function has been neutralized by the Conficker Working Group, which uses the worm’s broken domain algorithm to block it from receiving data.

If Conficker isn’t a serious threat, what is? Here are a few data points to consider from the Microsoft SIR that may be more important than Microsoft’s Conficker message:

Windows exploits rise significantly:  Operating System exploits, specifically targeting Microsoft Windows, skyrocketed by 100% in 2011.

Despite a security update in August 2010 addressing a publicly disclosed vulnerability in Windows Shell, attackers have been successfully targeting the flaw using malicious shortcut files. Exploits against the vulnerability and several others that were detected by Microsoft increased from 400,000 in the first quarter of 2011, to more than 800,000 in the fourth quarter of 2011. The statistics point to the Ramnit worm as the culprit targeting the flaw. It was recently detected transforming into financial malware capable of draining bank accounts.

The other Microsoft Windows flaw being targeted was a Microsoft Windows Help and Support Center vulnerability that can be targeted via a drive-by attack. It was repaired in a security update issued in July 2010.

Windows Vista infection rate higher than Windows XP: The infection rate for 32- and 64-bit editions of Windows Vista SP1 and the 64-bit edition of Windows Vista SP2 outpaced Windows XP SP3. Microsoft says attackers are targeting the newer platforms because companies are migrating to them. Infection rates for the 64-bit editions of Windows Vista and Windows 7 have increased since the first half of 2011, Microsoft said.

Microsoft said the increase is also due to detection signatures it added to its Malicious Software Removal Tool for several malware families in the second half of 2011. “Detections of these families increased significantly on all of the supported platforms after MSRT coverage was added,” the company said in its report. In addition, a security update addressing the Windows Autorun feature in Windows was issued last year and was likely a major factor in driving down the infection rate in Windows XP, the software maker said.

Java exploits are out of control: Java, which is platform independent, has no doubt become a favorite attack tool of cybercriminals. Combined, the top six Java exploits represented millions of unique infections, according to the Microsoft SIR. Exploits delivered through HTML or JavaScript skyrocketed in the second half of 2011. A single Sun Java Runtime vulnerability is responsible for 1.4 million infections in the fourth quarter of 2011. There was an explosion of infections in the fourth quarter of a single Java vulnerability using a MIDI file with a malicious MixerSequencer. Most of the activity is driven by the Black Hole Exploit Kit.

Adobe Reader, Acrobat attacks: While not out of control, it continues to be a favorite attack method of cybercriminals. “Exploits that affect Adobe Reader and Adobe Acrobat accounted for most document format exploits detected throughout the last four quarters.” There were nearly 1 million of them.

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