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Information Technology
315 Nichols Engineering
Virginia Military Institute
Lexington, VA 24450

2014-04-29, 1230 hours - New Security Vulnerability

Information Technology would like to alert our users of  a newly-discovered vulnerability in versions 6 to 11 of Internet Explorer could lead to "the complete compromise" of an affected system. That is the blunt assessment in an advisory released on Monday morning by the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team, a part of the Department of Homeland Security known as US-CERT.

VMI receives frequent alerts from US-CERT, but, with the exception of the Heartbleed Bug, few recent threats have been described as so serious. In fact, since about 55% of ALL Windows-based systems use some version of Internet Explorer, this threat could be even more widespread and serious than Heartbleed.

"We are currently unaware of a practical solution to this problem," Carnegie Mellon's Software Engineering Institute warned in a separate advisory that US-CERT linked to in its warning.
Microsoft’s own advisory describes the threat, but also describes the kinds of risky user actions on which so many cyber threats depend. Those user actions, which risk-aware users always avoid whatever the threat, are in bold below.

Mitigating Factors

  • By default, all supported versions of Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Outlook Express, and Windows Mail open HTML email messages in the Restricted sites zone. The Restricted sites zone, which disables script and ActiveX controls, helps reduce the risk of an attacker being able to use this vulnerability to execute malicious code. If a user clicks a link in an email message, the user could still be vulnerable to exploitation of this vulnerability through the web-based attack scenario.
  • An attacker who successfully exploited this vulnerability could gain the same user rights as the current user. Users whose accounts are configured to have fewer user rights on the system could be less impacted than users who operate with administrative user rights.
  • In a web-based attack scenario, an attacker could host a website that contains a webpage that is used to exploit this vulnerability. In addition, compromised websites and websites that accept or host user-provided content or advertisements could contain specially crafted content that could exploit this vulnerability. In all cases, however, an attacker would have no way to force users to visit these websites. Instead, an attacker would have to convince users to visit the website, typically by getting them to click a link in an email message or Instant Messenger message that takes users to the attacker's website.

Once again, a serious threat can be averted by alert users who understand that they are their own first and last lines of defense against cyber threats.
The takeaway: Don't cooperate with those who are out to get you, and they WON'T get you.

If you have any questions, please contact the Help Desk at Help@vmi.edu or call 7643.