Security flaws on the rise, questions remain
By Robert Lemos, SecurityFocus
Published Monday 9th January 2006 21:38 GMT

After three years of modest or no gains, the number of publicly reported
vulnerabilities jumped in 2005, boosted by easy-to-find bugs in web
applications. Yet, questions remain about the value of analyzing current
databases, whose data rarely correlates easily.

A survey of four major vulnerability databases found that the number of
flaws counted by each in the past five years differed significantly.
However, three of the four databases exhibited a relative plateau in the
number of flaws publicly disclosed in 2002 through 2004. And, every database
saw a significant increase in their count of the flaws disclosed in 2005.

A few common themes emerged from the data as well. In 2005, easy-to-find
flaws in web applications were likely responsible for the majority of the
increase, the database managers said in interviews with SecurityFocus.
However, some of the increase came from a doubling in the number of flaws
released by large software companies.

The most important, and perhaps obvious, lesson is that the software flaws
are here to stay, said Peter Mell, a senior computer scientist for the
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the creator of the
National Vulnerability Database (NVD) (, one of the
four databases surveyed.

"The problem of people breaking into computers is not going away any time
soon," Mell said. "There is certainly more patches every year that system
administrators need to install, but the caveat is that more vulnerabilities
seem to apply to less important software."

Vulnerability databases are coming of age. In 2005, NIST created the
National Vulnerability Database (
and software makers and security service providers have cooperated to create
the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS)
(, a standardized measure of the
severity of software flaws. The National Vulnerability Database completed
scoring flaws ( in its database
using the CVSS in late November. While auctions of vulnerability research
have not taken off (, two companies
now buy vulnerability information (
from flaw finders.

Four databases were surveyed: The Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT)
Coordination Center's database, the National Vulnerability Database (NVD),
the Open-Source Vulnerability Database (OSVDB), and the Symantec
Vulnerability Database. (SecurityFocus is owned by Symantec.)

The number of flaws cataloged by each database in 2005 varied widely,
because of differing definitions of what constitutes a vulnerability and
differing editorial policy. The OSVDB ( - which
counted the highest number of flaws in 2005 at 7,187 - breaks down
vulnerabilities into their component parts, so what another database might
classify as one flaw might be assigned multiple entries. SecurityFocus
( had the lowest count of the
vulnerabilities at 3,766.

The variations in editorial policy and lack of cross-referencing between
databases as well as unmeasurable biases in the research community and
disclosure policy mean that the databases - or refined vulnerability
information (RVI) sources - do not produce statistics that can be
meaningfully compared, Steve Christey, the editor of the Common
Vulnerability and Exposures (CVE) (, wrote in an
e-mail to security mailing lists
( on
Thursday. The CVE is a dictionary of security issues compiled by The MITRE
Corp., a government contractor and nonprofit organization.

"In my opinion, RVI sources are still a year or two away from being able to
produce reliable, repeatable, and comparable statistics," he wrote. "In
general, consumers should treat current statistics as suggestive, not

Recent numbers produced by the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team
(US-CERT) revealed some of the problems with refined vulnerability sources.
Managed by the CERT Coordination Center, the US-CERT's security bulletins
outline security issues but are updated each week. In a year end list
published last week, the US-CERT announced that 5,198 vulnerabilities had
been reported in 2005. Some mainstream media outlets noted the number
compared it to the CERT Coordination Center's previous data - which is
compiled from a different set of vulnerability reports - and concluded there
was a 38 per cent increase in vulnerabilities in 2005 over the previous

In fact, discounting the updated reports resulted in a 41 per cent decrease
to 3,074 vulnerabilities, according to an analysis done by Alan Wylie, an
independent computer programmer. If the data point could be compared with
statistics from CERT/CC, that would have placed the number of flaws reported
in line with the previous three years.

Yet, while the data is significantly flawed, the original story told by
US-CERT's list seems to be the right one. The number of vulnerabilities
reported in 2005 increased, mainly due to researchers looking into the
security of Web applications. The National Vulnerability Database noted the
largest increase of 96 percent from 2004 to 2005, while the Symantec
Vulnerability Database saw the smallest increase of 40 percent.

While publicly reported flaws jumped, that does not necessarily mean dire
prospects for home users' or businesses' security, said David Ahmad, manager
for development at Symantec's Security Response team.

"Web-based vulnerabilities are all over the place and they are really easy
to find--they are the low-hanging fruit," Ahmad said." We have had
high-profile vulnerabilities, but that is not what is driving this

Finding those flaws does not require much skills, said Brian Martin, content
manager for the OSVDB.

"We are seeing people discover vulnerabilities in software with tiny
distribution and low installed base--free guestbooks that are written left
and right, available by the thousands," he said. "And we are seeing that it
takes no skill to find vulnerabilities in these applications."
Disparate data

The number of vulnerabilities entered into four major databases vary widely
over the past five years, but seem to indicate that 2005 was a banner year
for bugs.
      2005     2004     2003     2002     2001
CERT/CC     5,990     3,780     3,784     4,129     2,437
NVD     4,584     2,340     1,248     1,943     1,672
OSVDB     7,187     4,629     2,632     2,184     1,656
Symantec     3,766     2,691     2,676     2,604     1,472

Sources: Computer Emergency Response Team Coordination Center (CERT/CC),
National Vulnerability Database, Open-Source Vulnerability Database, and the
Symantec Vulnerability Database.

Yet, the entire focus should not be on the rash of Web application flaws,
Mell said.

The computer scientist conducted an informal survey of entries for flaws in
products from well-known companies and found that six of 14 software makers
had seen a doubling in the number of vulnerability reports, while another
four firms saw a decrease in the number of reports. The remaining four
companies reported a similar number of flaws as the year before.

"I find it amazing that large and reputable software companies are seeing a
large number more flaws this year (2005) than last year," Mell said.

The database managers also cautioned that the vulnerability counts for any
particular year generally do not reflect the state of secure software
development, only where the research community's interests lie.

"These numbers are showing the state of practice from a few years ago,
rather than what the current state of practice is today," said Jeff
Havrilla, team leader of vulnerability analysis at the CERT Coordination

Making the issue more difficult, several software vendors move to release
patches on a specific day has resulted in most security bulletins detailing
multiple vulnerabilities, a situation that makes the true number of flaws
harder to count, Havrilla said.

This article was originally published at SecurityFocus

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