Feeds

What Adobe could learn from The Flying Wallendas

Do security safety nets make Reader less safe?

5 things you didn’t know about cloud backup

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.

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

Next page: Devs on a wire

More from The Register

next story
One HUNDRED FAMOUS LADIES exposed NUDE online
Celebrity women victimised as Apple iCloud accounts reportedly popped
Rubbish WPS config sees WiFi router keys popped in seconds
Another day, another way in to your home router
Goog says patch⁵⁰ your Chrome
64-bit browser loads cat vids FIFTEEN PERCENT faster!
NZ Justice Minister scalped as hacker leaks emails
Grab your popcorn: Subterfuge and slur disrupts election run up
HP: NORKS' cyber spying efforts actually a credible cyberthreat
'Sophisticated' spies, DIY tech and a TROLL ARMY – report
NIST to sysadmins: clean up your SSH mess
Too many keys, too badly managed
Scratched PC-dispatch patch patched, hatched in batch rematch
Windows security update fixed after triggering blue screens (and screams) of death
Attack flogged through shiny-clicky social media buttons
66,000 users popped by malicious Flash fudging add-on
New Snowden leak: How NSA shared 850-billion-plus metadata records
'Federated search' spaffed info all over Five Eyes chums
prev story

Whitepapers

Endpoint data privacy in the cloud is easier than you think
Innovations in encryption and storage resolve issues of data privacy and key requirements for companies to look for in a solution.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Advanced data protection for your virtualized environments
Find a natural fit for optimizing protection for the often resource-constrained data protection process found in virtual environments.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Next gen security for virtualised datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.