Online threats materializing faster-study

Online criminals are narrowing the time frame they need to unleash computer attacks that take advantage of publicly disclosed security holes.

More and more of these attacks are coming within 24 hours after a vulnerability is disclosed, a new research, quoted by an Associate Press report, said.

That means security flaws are being exploited in web browsers, computer operating systems and other programs before many people even have had time to learn there's a problem, according to IBM's latest internet Security Systems X-Force report.

The report looked at the first six months of 2008 and reflects two growing trends in internet-based threats.

The first is that online criminals have latched on in a big way to programs that help them automatically generate attacks based on publicly available information about vulnerabilities. In the past they apparently spent more time finding such holes themselves, but no longer find that as necessary.

'The bad guys are not the ones actively finding vulnerabilities _ they've shifted their business to standing on the shoulders of the security research community,' Kris Lamb, operations manager for X-Force, said in an interview. 'They don't have to do the hard work anymore. Their job is packaging what's been provided to them.'

The second trend is that the debate among security researchers is intensifying over how much information should be released to the public when a new software flaw is discovered.

Most times the researcher will wait until the affected company has released a software patch before revealing details. But sometimes researchers will release not only details of the vulnerability but also so-called 'proof-of-concept' exploit code to show the flaw is legitimate.

That runs the risk of providing criminals a framework for building their attacks, and saves them valuable time in doing so. Lamb said this finding 'begs the question' of what the security industry's standard practice should be.

The IBM report found that the tools criminals use to generate their attacks _ known as exploit code _ are appearing online faster than before.

The time from vulnerability disclosure to the availability of exploit code or a working attack has typically been measured in days or even weeks as criminals try to get their arms around a newly discovered weakness.