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New Java feature aims to manage multiple version problems

Sep 13, 20134 mins
Application SecurityJavaOracle

Admins now can link apps to a specific version of programming language

Hoary versions of Oracle’s programming language Java can be a security nightmare for organizations and a fever dream for hackers because those older releases often contain flaws — patched in later editions — that remain susceptible to exploitation by bad actors now.

The problem with running a new version of Java is that some apps important to a business’s operation may not work with it. Oracle made an effort to address that problem with a new version of Java 7 made available this week.

The new release, Java Update 40, implements changes announced by Oracle earlier this year. They include allowing network administrators to create a Deployment Rule Set (DRS) that defines which version of Java an app should use. Such definitions could allow critical internal apps to use older versions of Java, while forcing external apps — those more likely to carry infections that exploit flaws in older editions — to use the latest version.

In a company blog, Java Platform Group Product Manager Erik Costlow explained that the new release of Java is aimed at desktop administrators who manage a number of users and need to control version compatibility and default dialogs to specific company applets. It’s also designed for Java and Web Start app developers, who should be aware of the role deployment rule sets play on users’ desktops.

[See also: Java security woes to stay with businesses for a long time]

While Oracle’s intentions with DRS are laudable, the implementation may be wanting. “It’s not going to be an easy fix for anybody,” Ross Barrett, senior manager of security engineering at Rapid7, said in an interview. “It’s better than nothing. We had nothing before and now we have something very complicated and hard to manage.

“It’s a first step,” he added. “Hopefully they’ll refine it.”

Oracle did not respond to a request for comment.

What DRS attempts to do is give organizations control over employees’ desktop apps. That can be a dubious goal. “It’s noble and a good idea, but it’s high in administration costs,” NSS Research Director Chris Morales said in an interview.

He explained that for DRS to work an organization will need to know about all of the applications on employee desktops and the versions of Java required by those apps. Then, each desktop has to be configured with that information and maintained.

“Those are all problems with application control in general that makes it not work well in a dynamic environment,” Morales said.

Although DRS has security ramifications, it’s more of a deployment tool than a security tool. “If you look at the configuration necessary to deploy this, it’s really targeting large organizations that need to maintain a very consistent application environment across their infrastructure,” Alex Watson, director of security research at Websense, said in an interview.

“There’s some neat security features like the ability to select what version of Java runs for a particular app,” he continued, “but as far as impacting overall security posture, I don’t see it providing an extra level of security.”

Moreover, DRS could contribute to less secure networks by allowing organizations to feel comfortable using older, vulnerability-riddled releases of Java. “It reduces the chances that an organization is going to invest in updating their critical apps to support a newer version of Java,” Watson said.

Oracle maintains that its latest Java release will improve security by increasing awareness of an app’s origins. “By seeing the actual company or signer, the user is protected from running code by someone that they do not know,” wrote Product Manager Costlow.

Security experts, though, were skeptical about that Oracle claim. “I’d worry that its just another dialogue that they’ll ignore,” Timo Hirvonen, a senior researcher with F-Secure, said in an interview. “I wouldn’t bet money on that feature saving the world.”

Oracle has been experimenting with various pop-ups and warnings over the last several months. “The idea is that if you go to a website and a message pops up, you can make an educated decision about it,” Qualys CTO Wolfgang Kandek said in an interview.

“How well that works is doubtful,” he said. “Most users don’t understand what they mean and just click through to go on with the task they’re trying to accomplish.”