A surge in third-party software vulnerabilities accounted for the bulk of a ballooning bug count in the first half of 2010, said Danish security firm Secunia today.
The increasing number of flaws uncovered in non-Microsoft software puts users at risk because few third-party vendors offer automated update services, requiring people to seek out updates, then manually download and install patches.
"We were astonished to see the extent of the vulnerabilities in third-party software," said Stefan Frei, research analyst director at Copenhagen-based Secunia. "The jump in vulnerabilities was almost exclusively due to third-party applications, not Microsoft's."
Frei analysed Secunia's vulnerability database - the company is best known for tracking bugs and issuing advisories - and collected information on the average Windows PC's application inventory using Secunia's PSI (Personal Software Inspector). PSI is a free tool that scans PCs to produce a list of vulnerable software.
Secunia came up with a list of the top 50 programs in the average PC's software portfolio, tallied the vulnerabilities in those applications that were revealed in the first half of 2010, used those numbers to estimate the year's total, and then compared them with bug counts going back to 2005.
The results were striking. "This analysis clearly identifies vulnerabilities from third-party programs to be almost exclusively responsible for the increasing [vulnerability count] trend observed since 2007," Frei said in a report he published today (download PDF). "Data from the first half of 2010 shows that third-party program vulnerabilities are the primary risk factor for typical end-user PCs."
While vulnerabilities in Windows XP and Vista will climb by 31% and 34%, respectively, this year compared to 2009, bugs in third-party software will jump by 92%, in other words, nearly double last year's number.
Of the total increase in vulnerabilities that a Windows XP user will likely face throughout all of 2010, 79% can be traced to third-party programs, not Windows or other Microsoft software, such as Internet Explorer or Office.
Secunia's conclusion mirrors that of other security firms this year. Antivirus vendors McAfee and Symantec have both reported large surges in attacks exploiting bugs in Adobe's Reader, for example, one of the most widely-installed third-party browser plug-ins. McAfee, for example, said that exploits of Reader jumped 65% in the first quarter of 2010 compared to all of 2009.
The rising tide of vulnerabilities in third-party programs leaves users confused or worse, said Frei. "From the end-user's perspective, it adds lots of additional complexity, and makes the management of a PC that much harder," he said.
Most software makers don't make an effort to keep users safe, Frei argued, pointing out the dearth of automatic updating mechanisms like Microsoft's Windows Update. There are some exceptions - Google , Mozilla and Adobe, which recently offered hands-off patching - but for the most part, users have to scramble themselves to dig up and download fixes.
Which leaves most Windows machines vulnerable to attack.
"The best ways to reduce the risk...would be reducing the number of vulnerabilities and the window of opportunity to exploit vulnerabilities," said Frei in his report. "Sadly, data from more than a decade shows that the industry has proved unable to reduce the number of vulnerabilities discovered in their products, and there is little hope that this will change substantially in the years ahead."
With bug counts unlikely to shrink, users need a way to "readily install patches and thereby reduce the window of opportunity for criminals," Frei continued.
Along those lines, Secunia is working on an update to PSI, dubbed PSI 2.0, that will automatically fetch security patches from some 3,000 software vendors. PSI 2.0 was released as a "technical preview" last month, and will ship in final form before the end of the year, said Frei.
"It will automate the download and installation of the different third-party installation programs," Frei said. "It will either do it all automatically, or if the user wants, in a manual mode that says, 'Okay, here's the update, do you want it?'"
PSI 2.0's preview can be downloaded from Secunia's site.