Security experts have warned the new year will offer weary network administrators little respite from a new generation of internet worms, viruses and targeted hacks that appeared in 2003.
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In 2004, malicious hackers will continue to take advantage of security weaknesses in popular communications protocols such as Remote Procedure Call (RPC), while improvements in hacker tools will shorten the time that technology suppliers and their customers have to respond to new vulnerabilities, warned leading security researchers and corporate security experts at the InfoSecurity 2003 Conference and Exhibition.
The experts, including chief security officers from eBay and Siebel Systems, took part in a panel discussion of security vulnerabilities and so-called "zero-day" exploits - vulnerabilities exploited by attackers before software patches have been issued.
Attacks that take advantage of holes in RPC will continue next year, according to Gerhard Eschelbeck of security company Qualys. RPC vulnerabilities in Microsoft's products were behind recent worms such as Blaster and Welchia, which spread worldwide in August.
While many of those attacks will target Microsoft operating systems, malicious hackers may also look for ways to exploit RPC security holes in Unix and Linux, he said.
"RPC is a fundamental component of client-server computing. Next year we expect a multitude of vulnerabilities in [RPC], and those could lead to targets and attacks that are not homogenous, with a sudden shift to target different operating systems," Eschelbeck said.
With Microsoft planning security improvements to prevent Blaster-style attacks with the release of Windows XP Service Pack 2, hackers are also shifting their attention to areas not covered by the company, said Jeff Moss, president and chief executive officer of BlackHat.
In particular, hackers are exploring ways to attack memory "heaps". or areas of computer memory which are created dynamically when programs run. Such attacks would sidestep protections Microsoft is building into Windows XP to protect against memory stack overflows, which Blaster caused.
Improvements in the quality of software programs that hackers can use to develop code that exploits security vulnerabilities may result in more zero-day exploits. At the same time, better "rootkits", which allow hackers to control hacked computers, will make identifying compromised machines even more difficult, Moss said.
Corporate security experts recommended a variety of strategies for protecting networks and limiting damage.
Online auction company eBay uses layered security, including two-factor authentication and VPN (virtual private network) technology for remote users, automated patch management and reporting software, access control lists, gateway and desktop anti-virus software, as well as desktop firewalls for remote users, said eBay's chief security officer Howard Schmidt.
Siebel director of global security, David Mortman said his company's patch management software has saved him from more than one outbreak. After an infection by Slammer hobbled parts of Siebel's corporate network, the company became more aggressive about distributing software patches to affected systems.
Siebel distributes most patches to users within 36 hours and no longer performs exhaustive tests on patches to make sure they do not break key software applications before deploying them.
"After Slammer, we realised [testing patches against applications] is not worth the cost of getting infected," he said.
Organisations will also have to do a better job of securing resources within their corporate networks in 2004, the experts agreed.
The Blaster worm was the first example of an attack that did not cause widespread disruptions on the internet, but spread rapidly within corporate networks by exploiting holes in corporate networks used by telecommuters and mobile workers, Eschelbeck said.
"Blaster was a real turning point. You now have to look at the resources you have internally, not just on the outside," he said.
Paul Roberts writes for IDG News Service