As operating systems become more resistant to attack - mostly due to better patching of vulnerable code - third-party applications are now responsible for the vast majority of compromises.
Thus it should come as no surprise that, according to our 2014 Trustwave Global Security Report, 85 percent of the exploits we detected last year were of third-party plug-ins, including Oracle Java and Adobe Acrobat, Reader and Flash.
When it comes to running third-party software - whether it's outsourced, open-source or commercial off-the-shelf - businesses must be on guard. But many are not. Studies have shown that most application code run in enterprise environments come from third parties, but far fewer organizations have controls in place to evaluate the security of these entities and their apps.
This dark reality is starting to prompt action from industry groups, such as the Financial Services Information Sharing and Analysis Center, which has proposed new security controls for ensuring third-party software security and resiliency. Ultimately, though, it's up to the organizations that run third-party software to mitigate risk and manage this liability.
Here are five actions you should be taking:
1. Test Those Apps: First, define criteria for acceptably safe third-party apps that meet your corporate standards and also satisfy compliance requirements. Then, work with partners and vendors to test their apps. Companies like Trustwave can help assess, scan and automatically or manually pen test this code.
2. Formalize Your Patching Efforts: The long-standing practice of patching Windows updates and letting third-party apps fall by the wayside must end. Granted, it's far easier to patch Microsoft vulnerabilities given Automatic Update. But tools are available for third-party apps to centralize and automate the process, prioritize the deployment of patches and ensure all fixes are pushed out in a timely manner.
3. Ask Questions: Third-party management is always critical. Quiz your third-party developers on their security standards and testing. Create a mature policy that requires them to agree to follow your organization's policies and guidelines.
4. Heed the Compliance Warnings: Regulations and industry requirements, including version 3.0 of the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard, are taking third-party security more seriously.
5. Remember: It's Your Brand on the Line: Time and time again, we hear about data breaches that were caused by hackers taking advantage of a weakness in some third-party system to attack a specific company and steal sensitive data. Even though it may not necessarily be your fault, you will be the one that must fess up and deal with the costly aftermath.
Dan Kaplan is manager of online content at Trustwave and a former IT security reporter and editor.