Web site security holes make case for protection

The prevalence of vulnerabilities in scanned Web sites show why you can't just watch where you surf and be safe online.

Two-thirds of the sites that tend to care most about security still have serious unfixed vulnerabilities, according to an analysis from web security firm WhiteHat Security.

The statistics from WhiteHat's report, released today, cover vulnerabilities found in custom Web applications on 1,364 different Web sites. That number is only a small fraction of the number of sites online, but it represents those companies that have contracted with WhiteHat for additional security scanning, and therefore likely care more about security flaws than the average Web site.

Historically, 83 percent of the sites WhiteHat looks at have had a serious vulnerability at some point, according to WhiteHat founder Jeremiah Grossman. Currently, 64 percent still have at least one flaw. These numbers represent flaws in custom apps the companies make themselves, and not basic security holes resulting from a missing operating system or Web server patch, for instance.

The report's data is in line with previous analyses, and likely won't surprise anyone in the security business. Web surfers should take the findings as further evidence that the days of being able to stay safe online by simply avoiding sketchy sites are long gone. Online crooks often exploit these prevalent site vulnerabilities to hide attack code on otherwise benign Web sites, so to stay safe from these drive-by-download risks, even careful surfers should use capable antivirus protection and keep all software up-to-date.

Business can take note of WhiteHat's look at those sites that don't currently have any vulnerabilities. According to Grossman, safe companies didn't differ much from companies with vulnerable sites in terms of the Web technology used. Instead, he theorizes, companies with secure sites are those that put in the continuing human effort to identify and close security holes.

According to WhiteHat's report (requires registration), cross-site scripting vulnerabilities were the most common type of problem found, while social networking sites were the most likely to be vulnerable. Grossman suggests that social networking sites typically change their sites much more often than banks, for instance, which makes it more likely that new security holes will pop up even as older ones get closed.

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