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Cisco Black Hat talk illustrates wider security risks

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Analysis Security issues involving Cisco kit highlighted in Michael Lynn’s presentation at Black Hat are characteristic of networking vendors in general. Cisco is just the most visible of these vendors to target as hackers raise their sights from attacking operating systems towards attacking network infrastructure and database systems, security researchers warn.

According to vulnerability management firm nCircle, virtually all the network vendors tend to run monolithic, closed OSs that are mission-critical for their customers and doesn't lend itself well to the simplistic desktop patching models currently in place. nCircle reckons as Microsoft's security gradually improves hackers will look to others mechanisms of attack - a trend that puts networking equipment in the firing line.

Rooted routers

Timothy Keanini, CTO at nCircle, said that "as Microsoft raises the bar with countermeasures the threat goes elsewhere". Keanini, who attended Lynn’s presentation, said that it built on other research by German hacker FX, into security vulnerabilities with embedded systems such as routers and even printers. Compromised printers could be used to scan for vulnerabilities elsewhere in a network while rooted routers pose an even greater risk.

Cisco controversially slapped a restraining order on Lynn after he gave a talk on security weaknesses with the networking giant's core IOS software at the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas last month. Lynn quit his job at security tools vendor ISS in order to give a presentation about how it might be possible to remotely compromise Cisco routers and run malign code. Cisco said that Lynn had failed to follow approved industry practices in disclosing security vulnerabilities. It also took issue with Lynn's "irresponsible public disclosure of illegally obtained proprietary information".

Database security pitfalls

There's general agreement among security researchers that there's more interest in the digital underground in developing exploits to exploit network security flaws. Such exploits could be used to carry out denial of service attacks but some researchers reckon database systems offer a more lucrative target. Nigel Beighton, Symantec's director of enterprise strategy, EMEA, said that databases are the repository of sensitive corporate information and therefore a natural place to attack. The issue is compounded by a lack of adequate database security technology and infrequent patching schedules, he added.

Roy Hills, technical director at security consultant NTA Monitor, said that it sees a mixture of networking and software patching vulnerabilities when it carries out penetration testing work on behalf of clients. Security bugs in bespoke web application are also a frequent, and growing, source of problems. "Understanding the pitfalls of web application security is not as simple as following a recipe," Hills added. ®

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