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Microsoft warns of security flaw in its Word software

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March 25, 2014

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Microsoft is warning that its Word software is vulnerable to a newly discovered security issue which is being exploited in limited but targeted attacks in the open. For now, there is no security fix available at this time.

The security problem is triggered by opening a maliciously crafted RTF document in the Word processor, or opening it via Outlook, and it allows the attacker to execute arbitrary code on the computer.

The security issue was disclosed by Microsoft yesterday outside its monthly Patch Tuesday cycle. Opening a poisoned Rich Text File (RTF) document allows the attacker to hijack the PC with the same privileges as the logged-in user.

Microsoft Word 2003, 2007, 2010, 2013, and Office for Mac 2011 are all vulnerable to this, the company says. Microsoft Office Web Apps, Automation Services on SharePoint Server 2010 and 20103, and Outlook 2007, 2010 and 2013 when using Word as the email viewer, are also affected.

Drew Hintz, Shane Huntley, and Matty Pellegrino of the Google Security Team reported the Word RTF memory-corruption flaw to Microsoft; the security flaw was assigned CVE-2014-1761 on January 31, 2014.

One particularly bad part of the security vulnerability is that it can be triggered if a specially crafted RTF document attached to an email is previewed in Outlook.

Alternatively, an attacker could host a website that contains a webpage that contains a specially crafted RTF file that is used to attempt to exploit this vulnerability, Microsoft explained yesterday.

"An attacker who successfully exploited the security flaw could gain the same user rights as the current user. If the current user is logged on with administrative user rights, an attacker who successfully exploited this flaw could take complete control of an affected system," Microsoft warns.

Microsoft added that system admins should disable the opening of RTF data in Microsoft Word to prevent exploitation of the vulnerability. Using the Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit may also thwart attempts to compromise systems via this issue.

"On the completion of its investigation for this security vulnerability, Microsoft will take the appropriate actions to protect our customers, which may include providing a solution through our monthly security update release process, or an out-of-cycle security update, depending on customer needs," the company added.

In other internet security news

Oracle is warning its Australian customers in the enterprise segment to get ready for extra security patches in the next coming months.

Recent changes at Australia's federal laws mean that Oracle has warned its customers that one security patch will be needed to handle a new gender equity reporting requirement, while changes to superannuation (tr. retirement pension) will mean another two.

Then there's a fourth patch that can be expected to handle general other changes expected in the Federal budget, which is delivered in the first week of May and comes into effect as of July 1st.

Australia's financial management software vendors are briefed in advanced of the Budget, so that vendors generally know what they need to start working on.

Their software is also tuned to cope with the need for rapid adjustment. We understand that financial management packages have modular designs to make it easy for vendors' outposts in different nations to encode local regulations into their wares.

We're aware that at least one top tier ERP vendor outsources the creation of these hyper-local patches, in part because the local office is more concerned with – and competent at - sales and marketing than actual coding.

Even if outposts of multinational vendors have to scramble to get the job done, the work is probably welcome if Oracle's missive is anything to go on-- only users of version 12.0 or higher of Oracle Payroll can put the patches to work.

Government therefore keeps users on the upgrade treadmill, along the way creating just the kind of red tape Australia's rulers will this week decry with a “repeal day” dedicated to “cutting administrative overhead.”

In other internet security news

Farid Essebar, aka Diablo, has finally been arrested by Bangkok police after more than 3 years on the run, on suspicion of causing no less than $4 billion worth of damage to Swiss banking systems and various other institutions in Europe.

The 27-year-old Moroccan, who has a Russian passport, was caught by police from the the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), as well as officials from the Immigration Bureau, and the Office of the Attorney-General.

"We arrested the suspect at a condominium on Rama Road. Thailand will then send him to Switzerland within 90 days in accordance with the extradition agreement," police chief Songsak Raksaksakul said.

Swiss authorities are said to have alerted the Thai police through their embassy in Bangkok that the hacker and three associates had come to the south-east Asian country.

Why did it took so long to track him down is still a mystery, although the report claims that law enforcers wanted to make sure they got a positive identification of the criminal before swooping in for an arrest.

Over the past three years, Essebar and the three other men apparently spent their time moving between various Thai tourist destinations and also made stints to other nearby countries including Hong Kong, among others.

It’s still unclear exactly how long the Moroccan is facing in a Swiss jail, but if the prosecution is successful it won’t be the first time he’s gone behind bars.

Essebar was arrested back in August 2005 and jailed by a Moroccan court a year later for spreading the infamous Zotob worm which infected systems across the globe including those of CNN, ABC, the Financial Times and the New York Times.

It even managed to crash the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) US-VISIT border screening system, much to the embarrassment of the George Bush administration.

In other internet security news

European police agency Europol warns internet users again that using free Wi-Fi hotspots poses a data risk and that sensitive information can be lost or stolen by potential hackers that are located in the same hotspot.

Troels Oerting, head of Europol's cybercrime centre, told BBC News that a growing number of attacks are being carried out via public Wi-Fi service and that people should send personal data only across trusted networks.

"We have seen a growing increase in the misuse of Wi-Fi hotspots and the issue is getting worse, in order to steal information, identity or passwords and money from the users who use public or insecure Wi-Fi connections," he added.

The problems posed by using insecure Wi-Fi have been known for many years, and underscore the important need to use a VPN connection when accessing the internet from insecure public places such as cafes, transport hubs and conference venues.

But consumers often ignore these best practices, putting them at increased risk of getting hacked as a result. Sean Sullivan, security advisor at anti-virus firm F-Secure, commented-- "This has been a concern for many years, and that's why sensible companies force employees to use VPN connections. A Firefox plugin called 'Firesheep' definitively demonstrated just how utterly insecure Wi-Fi hotspots can be back in 2010."

Sullivan added that he used open hotspots all the time but always took care to take basic security precautions when he did. "If you want to use an open Wi-Fi hotspot to search for the latest sports scores, then go for it. But if you want to check your bank balance, read your email, have a private chat with your friends, then get yourself a VPN service,” he concluded.

According to a recent Kaspersky Lab survey, 34 percent of people using a PC admitted to taking no special measures to protect their online activity when using a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Only about 12.6 percent of internet users take the time to actively check the encryption standards of any access point before they use it, and that number is extremely low, considering all the risks that are involved.

The Kaspersky Lab survey does offer some comfort to those concerned about consumer attitudes to internet security. Only one in seven of those quizzed were comfortable banking or shopping online while connected to an untrusted Wi-Fi hotspot.

And in a related development, privacy groups such as the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) have teamed up with technology firms such as Twitter and privacy-focused search service DuckDuckGo to create a new campaign to improve data security for consumers in a post-Snowden world of dragnet surveillance.

The 'Encrypt all Things' campaign has drawn up a seven point Data Security Action Plan for 2014 specifically designed to promote better data protection practices by websites and the technology industry, as well as promoting greater security awareness about privacy-enhancing technologies among consumers.

In other internet security news

Internet security consultants are suggesting that Canadian businesses and the federal government should adopt a just-released U.S. government framework for tightening IT security of critical infrastructure, and by adding additional layers of security to improve the confidentiality of all saved data.

“I honestly don’t think that we should re-invent the wheel,” said Kevvie Fowler, a partner in the forensic advisory services at KMPG Canada.“

Fowler said that the guidelines were released February 12 by the federal National Information Technology Laboratory (NIST). “If you look at what has been done, it already leverages several concepts from internationally-adopted standards like ISO 27001/2 and a few others,” he added.

In 2010, the Harper government announced a national strategy to better protect critical infrastructure calling for the public and private sectors to work on addressing risks. But two years later, the Auditor General released a report complaining the strategy still didn’t have an action plan. That plan has since been completed.

Public Safety Canada has released a guideline of best practices for incident response. But Fowler said the NIST document goes further. Meanwhile, as part of its effort to work on an infrastructure security plan, the Canadian government is holding an invitation-only conference in New York next week.

Called a ``Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure`` it’s aimed at organizations, regulators and consumers to create or improve cybersecurity programs.

The document provides a common language to address and manage cyber risk in a cost-effective way based on business needs, without placing additional regulatory requirements on businesses, NIST says.

“The framework provides a consensus description of what’s needed for a comprehensive cybersecurity program,” said under secretary of commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST director Patrick Gallagher.

“Additionally, it reflects the efforts of a broad range of industries that see the value and need for improving cybersecurity and lowering overall risk. It will help companies prove to themselves and their stakeholders that good cybersecurity is good business.”

In short, it’s a series of best practices. The Harper government has been criticized for not providing leadership on cyberthreats to Canadian enterprises and citizens by an academic who specializes in international security.

A group of Canadian IT security professionals hopes to officially set up a national computer emergency response team (CERT) network next month that will run round the clock.

NIST says that several organizations can use the framework to determine their current level of IT security, set goals and establish a plan for improving or maintaining their cybersecurity.

It also offers a methodology to protect privacy and civil liberties (according to current U.S. law) to help organizations incorporate those protections into a comprehensive cybersecurity program.

Within the framework, which will be updated periodically, there are three main elements-- the core, tiers and profiles. The core presents five functions-— identify, protect, detect, respond and recover, that taken together, allow any organization to understand and shape its cybersecurity program.

The tiers describe the degree to which an organization’s cybersecurity risk management meets goals set out in the framework. The profiles help organizations move from a current level of cybersecurity sophistication to a target improved state that meets business needs.

In other internet security news

According to an industry warning from systems integrator Accuvant, more and more today, sophisticated hackers and well organized cybercriminals are increasingly carrying out DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks as a complex method in cover up their criminal activities, while trying to hide their ugly tracks. And the situation is starting to be really alarming says Accuvant, an internet security firm that researches advanced threats, methods and IT architectures.

Increasingly available automated DDoS attack toolkits provide cybercriminals an easy way to tie up system resources and often disrupt busy IT teams who are dispatched to remedy the issue and then get critical applications back online.

Attackers are increasingly using DDoS as a cover up, warned Craig Treubig, managing principal consultant at Accuvant. "These events cost organizations large sums of money in the form of service-level agreements, service interruptions, and credit protection for clients affected by an attack against the enterprise," Treubig wrote in his recent analysis of the threats.

And those attacks can be very costly to unprepared businesses, Treubig added. Expenses for an initial attack begins at $100,000 and the costs add up per hour during mitigation until the attack is fully resolved, he said.

Experts have documented the largest distributed denial of service attack ever seen earlier this week, with the volume coming in at 400 Gbps at its peak. Matthew Prince of website hosting provider CloudFlare said the attack was reported Monday and involved more than 4,500 servers in what is called a Network Time Protocol (NTP) server amplification attack.

It is one in a series of high-profile DDoS attacks conducted against U.S. banks and a large 300-Gbps attack last year against Spamhaus, a nonprofit antispam blacklist provider. The alleged attacker in the Spamhaus DDoS campaign has since been apprehended by authorities.

Prince said he is optimistic that network operators will address the infected NTP servers used in the latest attack. Worse, he clearly warned that the latest attack technique could theoretically be amplified to greater peak volume.

Accuvant's Treubig said that government agencies, businesses in the oil and gas industry, manufacturers, health-care organizations and higher education may be at increased risk for more-complex blended denial of service attacks. The industries are often pursued for their intellectual property or research information, Treubig said.

Solution providers say that they have been working with clients on ways to ensure they are prepared for denial of service attacks. Appliances such as firewalls often are not properly configured to handle a DDoS attack, despite having capabilities to filter out malicious traffic, the said.

Additionally, most clients are concerned about system availability, not an underlying cyberattack associated with the denial of service activity. But in 2013, Dell Secureworks published a report documenting ACH fraud at some banks and credit unions tied to DDoS attacks. In one attack, cybercriminals fraudulently transferred $2.1 million from a bank account. The transfers often go to banks located in Russia, Cyprus and China.

If you need reliability when it comes to SMTP servers, get the best, get Port 587.

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