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It's about time: Java update includes tool for blocking drive-by exploits

Whitelist clamps down on web-based code

Security for virtualized datacentres

Oracle's latest update to the Java SE Development Kit (JDK) version 7 adds new security features designed to help businesses avoid being stung by critical vulnerabilities in out-of-date versions of Java.

After a string of embarrassing Java security flaws was disclosed by independent researchers, Oracle has made addressing vulnerabilities its top priority for JDK 7, even going as far as to delay the release of JDK 8 so it could devote more resources to fixing bugs.

But many businesses still keep older versions of Java installed on client PCs because certain custom applications require them. That's bad, because these out-of-date versions contain critical vulnerabilities that in some cases will never be fixed. Oracle discontinued support for JDK 6 in June.

JDK 7 Update 40, issued on Tuesday, implements a new feature called Deployment Rule Set that aims to address this problem. It allows businesses that centrally manage their Java desktop installations to establish a set of rules specifying which Java applets and Java Web Start applications – collectively termed Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) – are allowed to run on client PCs.

For example, an admin could create a rule blocking execution of all RIAs and then add additional rules to whitelist specific ones. Rules can be written to match any portion of an application's URL, including the port number, and they can even specify the version of Java that should be used to run it. Full documentation on how this is done is available here.

By creating such rules, companies should be able to avoid many of the most serious Java exploits that have cropped up in recent months, most of which attack systems via the Java web plugin and do not affect server-side Java applications or desktop applications installed on the local machine.

Rules can additionally allow whitelisted RIAs to run without certain security prompts, such as warnings that the user is running an out-of-date version of Java.

The one caveat is that the Deployment Rule Set feature requires all client PCs to have the version of the Java web plugin that was distributed with Java SE 6 Update 10 and later. If a Deployment Rule Set is installed on a machine and the older version of the plugin is detected, all RIAs will be blocked.

Oracle also cautions companies to be careful not to let their rule sets fall into the wrong hands:

The Deployment Rule Set feature is optional and shall only be used internally in an organization with a controlled environment. If a JAR file that contains a rule set is distributed or made available publicly, then the certificate used to sign the rule set will be blacklisted and blocked in Java.

In addition to Deployment Rule Set, JDK 7 Update 40 brings several other new features and improvements, including Retina Display support for OS X, advanced monitoring and diagnostic tools for developers, new security warnings for unsigned and self-signed applications, and restrictions on use of certificates with keys less than 1024 bits in length. It also includes a number of bug fixes.

The update is available from the usual Java download website. ®

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