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Adobe fights exploits with MAPPs

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Black Hat Following a path first taken by Microsoft, Adobe Systems plans to provide security partners with information about upcoming security patches to give providers of antivirus products and intrusion prevention systems a head start in warding off attacks that target the flaws.

Rather than create the program from scratch, Adobe will release the technical details through MAPP, short for the Microsoft Active Protections Program, which the software giant established two years ago. Under the program, Adobe will provide comprehensive vulnerability information to all 65 MAPP members to make sure they can distribute protective signatures to their customers before exploits become widely available.

“Today, most security vendors, after we ship an update, need to back out or reverse engineer what it is we've changed and use it to provide protections against threats in case bad guys are exploiting it,” Brad Arkin, senior director of product security and privacy at Adobe, told The Register. “What's changing with MAPP is we'll be providing detailed technical guidance in advance of when we ship the software to those security vendors so that they'll have the answers right away instead of having to go through all that work and race against the clock at the same time that the bad guys get the information.”

Arkin said Adobe has been exploring ways to communicate technical details of planned fixes since early 2009 and eventually came to the conclusion that a system that mimicked MAPP made the most sense. “Instead of reinventing the wheel and having to stand up something like this from the beginning, we're able to leverage the years of experience, the existing relationships, and all the structure that's already been working very well,” he explained.

Adobe plans the disclosure to begin in the last quarter of the year. Although Adobe's frequently exploited Reader application is likely to play prominently in the new program, Flash, Cold Fusion and any other Adobe program is eligible.

Separately on Wednesday, Microsoft rolled out a new version of a tool that developers and administrators can use to harden older applications against common software vulnerabilities. Short for Enhanced Mitigation Evaluation Toolkit, EMET allows operating systems such as Windows XP and browsers such as Internet Explorer 6 to run advanced security protections such as DEP, or data execution prevention, and SEHOP, or structured exception handling overwrite protection, which otherwise are available only in newer releases.

The newest version of EMET will allow users to add two new mitigations, including mandatory ASLR, or address space layout randomization, and export address table filtering. A new graphical user interface will replace the older version's command-line format to make it easy for users to add a specific protection to a single application or process, without the need to recompile any code. In the first iteration of the program, which Microsoft released in October, the tool offered only SEHOP, which prevents many structured exception handling exploits; DEP, which marks certain parts of process memory as non-executable; NULL page allocation, designed to block NULL dereference exploits in user mode; and heap spray allocation, which pre-allocates certain memory addresses to make it harder for attackers to predict the location of malicious payloads.

“A large population is still using Windows XP or IE 6 and applications such as Firefox,” which don't automatically come with some of the more recent mitigations, said Dave Forstrom, director of Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing program. “This allows them to apply other mitigations that might help with current exploit techniques that are going on out there.”

Both Forstrom and Arkin said their companies had no plans to offer rewards to researchers who privately report previously unknown security vulnerabilities in the companies' software. Mozilla has been offering so-called bug bounties for years, and last week, shortly after Google said it would follow suit for flaws found in its Chrome browser, both outfits agreed to raise the fee to more than $3,000 for the most critical bugs.

Some private researchers have complained that Microsoft and Adobe, as two of the software makers with the largest number of reported security vulnerabilities, should also pay rewards.

For its part, Adobe plans to continue working with private consultants, an arrangement that Arkin said offers a much better return on investment.

“They become much more efficient at finding potential problems and at the end of the day, the total cost per bug that's mitigated as a result of that consulting engagement is a lot lower than what these bug bounty prices are today,” he told El Reg. “When I'm looking at how I can best spend my money to protect the users of Adobe software, we end up spending that money in the form of consulting engagements.” ®

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