Wolfgang Kandek, CTO of Qualys, recently gave an update on the Laws of Vulnerabilities research that Qualys initiated in 2004. Based on scanning 3 million IP addresses, and considering 2 million vulnerabilities, the initial results found that the half-life of unpatched vulnerabilities was 30 days. That is, the observed rate of patching halved the number of open vulnerabilities each month.
Kandek repeated this exercise on a grander scale in 2008, scanning 80 million IP addresses for over 870 million vulnerabilities, including 72 million that were critical. The data confirmed that the vulnerability half-life was 29.5 days, essentially unchanged from the initial finding 4 years before. This was an average taken over several 5 industry sectors, where the service sector had the lowest half-life at 21 days and the manufacturing sector had the highest at 51 days. The health sector weighed in at 38 days. Topping the list of the chronically under-patched were MS Office, Windows 2003 SP2, the Sun Java Plugin and Adobe Acrobat.
While the average half-life has remained essentially constant over the last 4 years, Kandek notes that the time from discovery to exploiting a vulnerability is going down. Qualys is aware of 56 zero-day exploits, and the availability of exploits is now measured in single digit days. Even though the half-life measure suggests that a given set of vulnerabilities will rapidly become “extinct”, in practice their threat lives on indefinitely since most vulnerabilities are never fully patched. Further, this patching rate is offset by a 60% replacement rate by new vulnerabilities.
Kandek concludes that
“Security is getting more difficult with attackers becoming extremely sophisticated and the window of exploitation shrinking to days for most critical vulnerabilities … Our goal with this research is to help organizations across different industries understand the broader trends, the potential for damage and the priority of vulnerabilities, so they can make more effective and more immediate decisions to protect their networks. With research like that outlined in the Laws of Vulnerabilities 2.0, we can provide the industry with a statistical look at threat trends in real-time."
Also, take a look at some recent advice from Tenable Security on how to read vulnerability reports, which will help you interpret Kandek's charts.