Feeds

What Adobe could learn from The Flying Wallendas

Do security safety nets make Reader less safe?

Choosing a cloud hosting partner with confidence

Analysis The Flying Wallendas were a legendary circus troupe that performed death-defying acts from a high wire without the use of nets or safety devices of any kind. Even when they performed their world-famous four-person, three-level pyramid act 50 feet in the air, patriarch Karl Wallenda steadfastly eschewed nets out of a belief they sapped the aerialists' concentration.

“He did feel that a net could cause you to be sloppy and not really train the way you should to prepare for a performance and therefore give you a false security,” Karl Wallenda's grandson, Tino, said recently from a performance in Greenfield, Massachusetts. “It makes the audience feel comfortable more than it makes us, the performers, feel comfortable.”

Perhaps the recently discovered attack targeting a code-execution vulnerability in Adobe's near-ubiquitous Reader application should raise similar concerns in the software arena.

The 15-page PDF was able to compromise PCs even when they ran Reader on versions of Microsoft Windows that are fortified with protections designed to lessen the damage from garden-variety bugs – such as the stack overflow being targeted in Reader. While white-hat hackers have demonstrated similar techniques over the past 18 months or so, the Reader exploit marks one of the first times they've been used in the wild, Nicolas Joly, a vulnerability researcher with Vupen Security, said earlier this week.

Image of Wallendas performing pyramid act

Constantly risking absurdity security

Particularly hard to defeat – or so we've been told – is a protection known as ASLR, or address space layout randomization, which Microsoft introduced with Windows Vista. It loads system components in a different memory location each time a machine is rebooted. That means that even when attackers have identified a vulnerability that allows malicious code to be injected into the operating system, they will have a hard time knowing where to find and run it.

The criminals behind the Adobe exploit worked around this feature by piggybacking their attack on a Reader file known as icucnv36.dll, which because of an oversight at Adobe, doesn't make use of ASLR. With a single mistake, a protection Microsoft spent years developing was undone. An Adobe spokeswoman said the company will “perform a thorough review of each vulnerability and our response” – including the lack of ASLR protection for the DLL file – so that changes can be made to the development process.

The attack also got around a second major defense that's known as DEP, or data execution prevention. The feature blocks the execution of code in specific memory regions, a measure that prevents the running of malicious shellcode even if it manages to sneak into a known region of computer memory. To do this, the attackers made use of a technique called ROP. Short for return oriented programming, it copies legitimate pieces of code already in use and reorders them in a way that significantly alters what they do.

ROP turned heads when it was successfully used at this year's Pwn2Own hacker contest. It's now becoming a staple of exploits used in the wild. And so are techniques, such as heap spraying and JIT spraying, that defeat ASLR.

And that should be a wake-up call for the entire industry.

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Next page: Devs on a wire

More from The Register

next story
FYI: OS X Yosemite's Spotlight tells Apple EVERYTHING you're looking for
It's on by default – didn't you read the small print?
Russian hackers exploit 'Sandworm' bug 'to spy on NATO, EU PCs'
Fix imminent from Microsoft for Vista, Server 2008, other stuff
Edward who? GCHQ boss dodges Snowden topic during last speech
UK spies would rather 'walk' than do 'mass surveillance'
Microsoft pulls another dodgy patch
Redmond makes a hash of hashing add-on
NOT OK GOOGLE: Android images can conceal code
It's been fixed, but hordes won't have applied the upgrade
'LulzSec leader Aush0k' found to be naughty boy not worthy of jail
15 months home detention leaves egg on feds' faces as they grab for more power
China is ALREADY spying on Apple iCloud users, claims watchdog
Attack harvests users' info at iPhone 6 launch
prev story

Whitepapers

Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Why and how to choose the right cloud vendor
The benefits of cloud-based storage in your processes. Eliminate onsite, disk-based backup and archiving in favor of cloud-based data protection.
Three 1TB solid state scorchers up for grabs
Big SSDs can be expensive but think big and think free because you could be the lucky winner of one of three 1TB Samsung SSD 840 EVO drives that we’re giving away worth over £300 apiece.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.