Security statistics show surprising finds

The Microsoft Windows application is more secure than you think, and Mac OS X is worse than you ever imagined. That is according...

The Microsoft Windows application is more secure than you think, and Mac OS X is worse than you ever imagined. That is according to statistics published for the first time this week by Danish security firm Secunia.

The statistics, based on a database of security advisories for more than 3,500 products during 2003 and 2004 sheds light on the real security of enterprise applications and operating systems. Each product is broken down into pie charts demonstrating how many, what type and how significant security holes have been in each.

The figures have shown is that OS X's reputation as a relatively secure operating system is unwarranted, Secunia said.

This year and last year Secunia tallied 36 advisories on security issues with the software, many of them allowing attackers to remotely take over the system - comparable to figures on operating systems such as Windows XP Professional and Red Hat Enterprise Server.

"Secunia is now displaying security statistics that will open many eyes, and for some it might be very disturbing news," said Secunia chief executive Niels Henrik Rasmussen. "The myth that Mac OS X is secure, for example, has been exposed."

Its service, easily accessible on its website, allows enterprises to gather exact information on specific products, by collating advisories from a large number of third-party security firms.

Secunia said the service could help companies keep an eye on the overall security of particular software - something that is often lost in the flood of advisories and the attendant hype.

"Seen over a long period of time, the statistics may indicate whether a supplier has improved the quality of their products," said Secunia chief technology officer Thomas Kristensen.

He said the data could help IT managers get an idea of what kind of vulnerabilities are being found in their products, and prioritise what they respond to.

For example, Windows security holes generally receive a lot of press because of the software's popularity, but the statistics show that Windows is not the subject of significantly more advisories than other operating systems. Windows XP Professional saw 46 advisories in 2003-2004, with 48% of vulnerabilities allowing remote attacks and 46% enabling system access, Secunia said.

SuSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) 8 had 48 advisories in the same period, with 58% of the holes exploitable remotely and 37% enabling system access. Red Hat's Advanced Server 3 had 50 advisories in the same period - despite the fact that counting only began in November of last year. Sixty-six percent of the vulnerabilities were remotely exploitable, with 25% granting system access.

Mac OS X does not stand out as particularly more secure than the competition, according to Secunia.

Of the 36 advisories issued in 2003-2004, 61% could be exploited across the internet and 32% enabled attackers to take over the system.

The proportion of critical bugs was also comparable with other software - 33% of the OS X vulnerabilities were "highly" or "extremely" critical by Secunia's reckoning, compared with 30% for XP Professional and 27% for SLES 8 and just 12% for Advanced Server 3. OS X had the highest proportion of "extremely critical" bugs at 19%.

Sun Microsystems' Solaris 9 saw its share of problems, with 60 advisories in 2003-2004, 20% of which were "highly" or "extremely" critical.

Comparing product security is difficult, and has become a contentious issue recently with vendors using security as a selling point.

A recent Forrester Research study compared Windows and Linux supplier response times on security flaws and was heavily criticised for its conclusion that Linux suppliers took longer to release patches. Linux suppliers attach more weight to more critical flaws, leaving unimportant bugs for later patching, something the study failed to factor in, according to Linux companies.

Suppliers also took issue with the study's method of ranking "critical" security bugs, which did not agree with the suppliers' own criteria.

Secunia agreed that straightforward comparisons are not possible, partly because some products receive more scrutiny than others.

Microsoft products are researched more because of their wide use, while open-source products are easier to analyse because researchers have general access to the source code, Kristensen said.

"A product is not necessarily more secure because fewer vulnerabilities are discovered," he added.

Matthew Broersma writes for Techworld.com

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