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Many popular software applications have avoided including security protection mechanisms built into the latest versions of Windows. The omission leaves these applications at greater risk of hacker attack, according to a study by security patching and notification firm Secunia.

Two key security mechanisms in Windows - DEP (Data Execution Prevention) and ASLR (Address Space Layout Randomization) - are designed to make it hard for hackers to develop reliable exploits even in cases where security bugs are present in Windows applications. DEP, first added to Windows with XP Service Pack 2 in August 2004, is designed to prevent the execution of writable memory. ASLR, which debuted with Vista, further complicates the process of creating reliable exploits.

But the safety mechanisms only come into play in cases where software applications fail to support the security mechanisms. Secunia's study on the most popular non-Microsoft applications installed on Windows users' systems, based on statistics from its PSI security patching tool, shows that the vast majority of 16 popular utilities analysed fail to support either DEP or ASLR.

Java, Apple Quicktime, Foxit Reader, Google Picasa, OpenOffice.org, RealPlayer and VLC Player all fail to integrate either DEP or ASLR. Browser makers - Mozilla Firefox, Chrome, Opera - do a rather better job of applying DEP but this integration is inconsistent between different Windows platforms and not reliably extended to ASLR.

Similar criticism applies to Adobe apps, a prime target for hacker attacks over recent months.

"DEP and ASLR support, although usually trivial to implement, is overlooked by a large number of application developers," Salin Rad Pop, a senior security specialist at Secunia, writes. "Some developers have over time made their applications compatible with DEP, but overall the implementation process has proven slow and uneven between OS versions."

"ASLR support is on the other hand improperly implemented by almost all vendors, allowing return-into-libc techniques to likely succeed in their applications or in browsers designed to be otherwise ASLR compliant."

Secunia reckons the failure to apply Microsoft's security protections has become a major reason why hackers have turned their sights against attacks against third-party applications, rather than Windows, a major trend in the vulnerability and exploit arena over the last two or three years.

"While most Microsoft applications take full advantage of DEP and ASLR, third-party applications have yet to fully adapt to the requirements of the two mechanisms. If we also consider the increasing number of vulnerabilities discovered in third-party applications, an attacker's choice for targeting a popular third-party application rather than a Microsoft product becomes very understandable," Secunia concludes.

Secunia's study can be found here (pdf). ®

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