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Application security programs and practises

It's been a busy week for software bug hunters. First, users of Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express will be bitterly disappointed to learn that they are now potential sport of an e-mail exploit which will run automatically, without any action from the victim, a possibility which has been predicted for years while Redmond has persistently ignored it.

Malicious code can be concealed in an e-mail header to trigger a buffer overflow, after which an attacker can include commands which will run as if they had been entered by the victim.

Once that's been accomplished, the sky's the limit in terms of what an imaginative attacker could do to a victim's computer - from viewing or sending files to a remote location, changing system settings, deleting files, uploading and executing Trojans, re-formatting a hard disk - virtually anything is possible.

"Clearly this is a serious vulnerability," Microsoft security program manager Scott Culp, warbled during a telephone interview with the Associated Press on Wednesday. (We told you these guys were brilliant.)

Australian Aaron Drew posted his findings Tuesday to the NTBugTraq mailing list, complete with sample code. South American security outfit USSR Labs had also found the exploit approximately two weeks ago but did not announce it in hopes that Redmond would cobble together a fix first.

Microsoft says the hole will not affect users running Outlook in "corporate and workgroup mode"; only those running it in "Internet-only mode", and home users of Outlook Express, are vulnerable.

Microsoft said the problem is in Internet Explorer, and the company recommends that users upgrade to IE 5.01, Service Pack 1. Internet Explorer 5.5 is safe for all users, except those running Windows 2000, who also need to download IE 5.01 SP1.

Microsoft's security bulletin may be found here, while the service pack can be found here.

If that wasn't bad enough, the US System Administration, Networking, and Security (SANS) Institute found another Microsoft weakness, this time involving ActiveX controls, which it called "probably the most dangerous programming error in Windows workstation (all varieties - 95, 98, 2000, NT 4.0) that Microsoft has made".

A SANS security alert states that users are vulnerable to a total system compromise when they preview or read an infected e-mail message if they're running any of the affected operating systems and have Microsoft Access 97 or 2000, Internet Explorer 4.0 or higher, including version 5.5 that ships with Windows 2000.

The exploit was first discovered 27 June, but Microsoft requested that SANS not release the details until a fix could be developed.

Users running systems with Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora, or any mail client which uses Internet Explorer to render HTML documents are also vulnerable to this exploit through e-mail, SANS says.

According to the advisory, an attacker can get into Microsoft Access using ActiveX controls without the victim knowing that it's happening. Malicious code can be written so as to execute before the victim is warned, the Institute explains. Even when the victim has disabled active scripting, the code can run.

All Windows systems (Windows 2000, NT 4.0, 98 and 95) are vulnerable if they have the following installed: Microsoft Excel 2000 or PowerPoint 97 or 2000; Internet Explorer 4.0 or higher, including 5.5; Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora, or any other mail reader that uses IE to render HTML.

A complete workaround is available here. ®

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