A new zero-day exploit of Microsoft Excel has me pondering a standard bit of security advice, "be careful what you click." This meme survives to be repeated at nearly every outbreak, yet it simply isn't very effective. You've probably seen a story or blog post about this already, but in case you haven't here's the alert from the Microsoft technet blog which got me thinking:
Reports of new vulnerability in Microsoft ExcelMany online article and blog postings repeated this advice, unquestioningly. Some folks even praised it, including the respected security professional Brian Krebs. In his post about the issue at the Security Fix blog, he says it's "always good advice" that one be very careful opening unsolicited attachments. Recently similar advice was given to users of various Instant Messaging systems, as a "worm" affected users of Yahoo's system. In fact, the "worm" required the user to click it, meaning that its spread couldn't possibly achieve the "every vulnerable machine got hit" levels of a real automatically propagating network worm. However, these Instant Message viruses and email viruses can affect large numbers of systems in a short amount of time. A year or so ago I saw an outbreak of an email virus hit 1.5% of the systems at a large customer. It hit so many people (over 500) so fast (within an hour or two) that we at first thought it was exploiting an automatic execution hole in the email client. In fact, it had just been a little more clever than average at social engineering—tricking people to click it. I briefly interviewed a few of the victims, some of whom were trained IT professionals, who spent a lot of time during the course of the year explaining to users that they shouldn't click unexpected attachments. Well, the virus in question was somewhat clever. It nearly always appeared to be from someone you know. It sent an attachment which appeared to be a spreadsheet (it was instead an executable virus). It used cleverly mundane subject lines. Nearly all of the victims had received a virus pretending to be a spreadsheet which appeared to be from someone that they regularly receive a spreadsheets from via email. How careful must people be? Scanning a file first wouldn't have protected the victim against zero-day threats like the current Excel threat. We give the same advice to people about web surfing. Be careful where you surf, be careful what you click. It doesn't work there, either. Corporate and home PCs alike see anywhere from 1% to 20% ambient levels of adware and spyware infestation. But the web is a treasure trove of useful and wonderful things you might never discover if, sometimes, you don't click with essentially reckless abandon. The sentiment is pure, but most users are not able to easily tell what to click from what to avoid. Only the most rudimentary of email viruses or phishing can most people filter out at a glance. I've given this advice myself many times, trying to carefully explain how to tell good from bad emails, and good from bad free downloads. I think in general the advice hasn't been helpful to most people most of the time. High levels of ongoing infestation from adware and spyware, widespread damage from Instant Message "worms" and rampant identity theft all tell us that the advice isn't working.
" In order for this attack to be carried out, a user must first open a malicious Excel document that is sent as an email attachment or otherwise provided to them by an attacker. (note that opening it out of email will prompt you to be careful about opening the attachment) So remember to be very careful opening unsolicited attachments from both known and unknown sources."