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Surprised? Old Java exploit helped spread Red October spyware

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Unpatched Java installations may have helped spread the malware responsible for the recently uncovered "Red October" cyber-spying campaign, researchers at Seculert have revealed.

Kaspersky Labs first disclosed the existence of Red October on Monday, claiming that the program had been responsible for attacks on systems in Eastern European countries, former Soviet republics, and Central Asian nations over the last five years.

The primary vectors used to install the malware were emails containing attached documents that exploited vulnerabilities in Microsoft Word and Excel. Recipients who opened the documents became unwitting participants in the cyber-espionage scheme.

But further investigation by Seculert has revealed that Red October's masterminds had a backup plan – namely, installing the malware by directing users to a web page that exploited a known vulnerability in the Java browser plugin.

In a blog post on Tuesday, Seculert researchers explained that a special folder on the Red October command-and-control servers contained a PHP page that could exploit the Java flaw, causing the hapless victim's browser to download and execute Red October's "Rocra" malware automatically.

Similar exploits have made headlines in recent months, with hackers and security researchers exposing a seemingly endless series of Java vulnerabilities that could allow attackers to compromise client machines. Occasionally, researchers have discovered sites that actively exploit these flaws in the wild.

In the case of Red October, the specific vulnerability targeted was an old one, CVE-2011-3544, which Oracle fixed with a Critical Patch Update in October 2011.

It may seem strange that Red October's authors would go after such an ancient flaw, given that their exploit code was compiled in February 2012, well after a fix had already been issued. But these Java vulns have a way of lingering around on unpatched machines.

In fact, CVE-2011-3544 was one of the Java vulnerabilities used to spread the Mac-specific Flashback Trojan in early 2012. One of the reasons that attack was so successful was because at the time, security fixes for Apple's Mac OS X–specific version of Java tended to lag behind fixes for the mainline version.

Even Oracle has been known to take its sweet time patching potentially risky Java bugs. In August 2012, Adam Gowdiak of Polish firm Security Explorations revealed that although he had promptly informed Oracle of several serious vulnerabilities he had discovered, the database giant dragged its feet for more than four months before issuing patches, a delay that gave cyber-crooks time to discover and exploit the flaws. And even then, Oracle's fix didn't fully address the problem.

Metasploit founder HD Moore claims it will likely take Oracle two years to get its Java security house in order, given its past track record. Little wonder, then, that no less than the US Department of Homeland Security has cautioned users to disable Java in their browsers "unless it is absolutely necessary."

According to Seculert, Java flaws probably weren't involved in most Red October infections, but only because a misconfigured server disabled the PHP code that would have delivered the exploit.

If hackers were looking for a new way to keep Red October going, however, it wouldn't be hard to find one. On Sunday, security researchers announced that a new, unpatched Java security hole had already been discovered following Oracle's most recent patch, and that one enterprising hacker was offering to sell an exploit kit at a price of $5,000 a throw. ®

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