The SANS Institute based in Bethesda, Md., teamed up with the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center to compile a list of the most dangerous vulnerabilities -- the top 10 for Windows systems and the top 10 for Unix systems. The two agencies worked with about 70 organizations -- security vendors, watchdog groups, government agencies -- to whittle down the list out of the thousands of vulnerabilities that have been logged over the years.
"The real issue when any administrator looks at a list of vulnerabilities is figuring out simply where to start," says Dan Woolley, a vice president at SilentRunner, Inc., a security firm out of Reston, Va. "It's incredibly hard to absorb the massive number of vulnerabilities and weaknesses out there. If you know what the top vulnerabilities are, you can start to prioritize."
The vulnerabilities listed, such as Internet Information Services and SQL Server, are broad and generalized. But industry watchers say it's meant to give administrators a starting point -- a place to begin to drill down and look for weaknesses in individual systems.
"One of the challenges is that the categories may appear rather general," says Marc Willebeek-LeMair, chief technology officer of TippingPoint Technologies, Inc., a security company out of Austin, Texas that participated in identifying the top vulnerabilities. "We list Internet Information Services. That is broad. But we've seen a number of releases from Microsoft that look to patch a variety of IIS-associated vulnerabilities. People tend to think they've patched something once so they're done. It's important to understand that it's an ongoing, living process."
Woolley adds that it's important to start out general and then drill down since every network is different.
"Start simple and then you'll know where to go for more detail," says Woolley. "One of the biggest problems is that most people don't know what's on their network. Networks are very dynamic. Things are being plugged in and taken off on a regular basis. It's so hard to keep up."
Administrators should sit down with the list and go through each vulnerability and match it up to their systems, according to Dan Ingevaldson, a team leader for Internet Security Systems, Inc., an Atlanta-based security firm that also worked on the vulnerability list. Correspond the pieces of the network -- database servers or Web servers, for instance -- with vulnerabilities on the list.
"Every system is different and every company has different concerns," says Ingevaldson. "Is it a priority to stay online or is it more of a priority to keep information secret? Match the vulnerabilities with the concerns and the needs. Has your network been getting hit with certain types of attacks? Go after that first."
And there's no lack of vulnerabilities to tackle.
All the security experts agreed that the influx of vulnerabilities is gathering speed.
"It seems like the rate of vulnerabilities announced is incrementally moving up," says Ingevaldson. "Some months we record 300 issues. There's a variety of factors for that. The commercialization of the Internet. The amount of money on the Internet. And there are a lot more people out there today with the skills to create problems."
Here is the vulnerability list released this week:
Top Vulnerabilities to Windows Systems
Top Vulnerabilities to Unix Systems