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Adobe users imperiled by critical Reader flaw

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Updated Once again, Adobe is scouring its Reader application for bugs following reports that it's susceptible to two vulnerabilities that could allow attackers to remotely execute malicious code on end-users' machines.

According to SecurityFocus advisories here and here, both flaws use javascript to exploit boundary condition errors that execute arbitrary code on Linux machines running versions 9.1 and 8.1.4 of Reader.

Secunia considers the vulnerabilities "highly critical," its second highest rating on a five-tier scale.

"We are currently investigating, and will have an update once we get more information," David Lenoe, a member of Adobe's product security incident response team, wrote on Monday. He promised Adobe would report back once it knew more, but at the time of writing, that still had not happened.

Over the past year, the ubiquity of Adobe's Reader and Flash programs have made them a favorite target of both white hat and black hat hackers. In February, after malware gangs began attacking a critical vulnerability in Reader, it took Adobe three weeks to patch the flaw. That prompted criticism that the response time was inadequate to protect its sizable base of users, which span the Windows, Mac, and Linux platforms.

Users looking to protect themselves have at least two options, and neither is particularly effective. One is to switch to a PDF alternative such as Foxit (a more complete list of alternative readers is available here). These readers frequently have their own vulnerabilities, but at least they are less targeted.

The other measure all Adobe Readers should take immediately is to disable javascript. This is easily done in version 9.1 for Windows by accessing preferences in the Edit menu, scrolling down to javascript and unchecking the box that says "Enable Acrobat JavaScript." This will by no means protect you from all Reader exploits, but it will certainly make attackers work much harder.

With the rash of bad press Adobe security has gotten over the past year, it's surprising that the company hasn't done more to snuff bad code out of its products. One answer is for it to develop the comprehensive type of SDL, or secure development lifecycle, championed by Microsoft. Over the past decade, Microsoft has gone from laughing stock to trusted member in security circles, and it largely has its SDL to thank for that.

So far, Adobe seems to be taking the route of most teenagers, willfully determined to make its own mistakes. Should they decide to learn some of life's hard lesson from the travails of others, Microsoft is happy to help. ®

Update

Adobe has updated its blog to report that all supported versions of Reader are vulnerable. It plans to publish a time line for patching the holes as soon as possible. Security pros are not aware of any in-the-wild attacks exploiting the bugs. In the meantime, they recommend users disable javascript.

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