Industry Observations-Vulnerabilities-Web Application Security

The Parabola of Reported WebAppSec Vulnerabilities

The nice folks over at Risk Based Security’s VulnDB gave me access to take a look at their extensive collection of vulnerabilities that they have collected over the years. As you can probably imagine, I was primarily interested in their remotely exploitable web application issues.

Looking at the data, the immediate thing I notice is the nice upward trend as the web began to really take off, and then the real birth of web application vulnerabilities in the mid 2000’s. However, one thing I found that struck me as very odd was that we’re starting to see a downward trend in web application vulnerabilities since 2008.

  • 2014 – 1607 [as of August 27th]
  • 2013 – 2106
  • 2012 – 2965
  • 2011 – 2427
  • 2010 – 2554
  • 2009 – 3101
  • 2008 – 4615
  • 2007 – 3212
  • 2006 – 4167
  • 2005 – 2095
  • 2004 – 1152
  • 2003 – 631
  • 2002 – 563
  • 2001 – 242
  • 2000 – 208
  • 1999 – 91
  • 1998 – 25
  • 1997 – 21
  • 1996 – 7
  • 1995 – 11
  • 1994 – 8

Assuming we aren’t seeing a downward trend in total compromises (which I don’t think we are) here are the reasons I think this could be happening:

  1. Code quality is increasing: It could be that we saw a huge increase in code quality over the last few years. This could be coming from compliance initiatives, better reporting of vulnerabilities, better training, source code scanning, manual code review, or any number of other places.
  2. A more homogenous Internet: It could be that people are using fewer and fewer new pieces of code. As code matures, people who use it are less likely to switch in favor of something new, which means there are fewer threats to the incumbent code to be replaced, and it’s therefore more likely that new frameworks won’t get adopted. Software like WordPress, Joomla, or Drupal will likely take over more and more consumer publishing needs moving forward. All of the major Content Management Systems (CMS) have been heavily tested, and most have developed formal security response teams to address vulnerabilities. Even as they get tested more in the future, such platforms are likely a much safer alternative than anything else, therefore obviating the need for new players.
  3. Attacks may be moving towards custom web applications: We may be seeing a change in attacker tactics, where they are focusing on custom web application code (e.g. your local bank, Paypal, Facebook), rather than open source code used by many websites. That means they wouldn’t be reported in data like this, as vulnerability databases do not track site-specific vulnerabilities. The sites that do track such incidents are very incomplete for a variety of reasons.
  4. People are disclosing fewer vulns: This is always a possibility when the ecosystem evolves far enough where reporting vulnerabilities is more annoying to researchers, provides them fewer benefits, and ultimately makes their life more difficult than working with the vendors directly or holding onto their vulnerabilities. The presence of more bug bounties, where researchers get paid for disclosing their newly found vulnerability directly to the vendor, is one example of an influence that may affect such statistics.

Whatever the case, this is is an interesting trend and should be watched carefully. It could be a hybrid of a number of these issues as well, and we may never know for sure. But we should be aware of the data, because in it might hide some clues on how to further decrease the numbers. Another tidbit that is not expressed in the data above shows that there were 11,094 vulnerabilities disclosed in 2013, of which 6,122 were “web related” (meaning web application or web browser). While only 2,106 may be remotely exploitable (meaning it involves a remote attacker and there is published exploit code) context-dependent attacks (e.g. tricking a user to click a malicious link) are still a leading source of compromise at least amongst targeted attacks. While vulnerability disclosure trends may be going down, organizational compromises appear to be just as common or even more so than they have ever been. Said another way, compromises are flat or even up, and new remotely exploitable web application vulnerabilities being disclosed is down. Very interesting.

Thanks again to the Cyber Risk Analytics VulnDB guys for letting me play with their data.

Tags: web application security, web application vulnerabilities