Excel flagged as corporate security weak spot

Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet program has become a primary target for hacking attacks, according to security experts recently interviewed by Redmond magazine.

In the last 12 months, for example, Symantec has identified at least six Excel vulnerabilities for which there were no patches. Microsoft notified users of the latest zero day vulnerability last month, and previously released a set of Excel patches in its July 2007 security bulletin.

"The increase in attacks in Excel are numerous and the application seems to be at the forefront of ushering in frequent application-level attacks that we're seeing more of now than ever," Symantec Security Response manager Ben Greenbaum told Redmond, which calls itself the "independent voice of the Microsoft IT community."

Don Leatham of Arizona-based Lumension Security commented: "Out of all the applications sitting on networks and desktops around the globe, Excel lends itself to be the most natural attack target because of its ubiquity in the corporate world."

As hacking attacks increased on Windows applications, Microsoft has put a lot of effort into strengthening security in the core operating system, but this focus has taken attention away from vulnerabilities in end-user applications such as Excel, according to the security experts.

Leatham likened alien Excel files to pornography and urged security administrators to tell users not to open such documents. "How often to you hear about IT staff telling people not to click on these documents and they still do?" he asked.

To minimize the risks, he advised setting Excel to disable automatic execution of macros and monitoring Group Policy Objects.

The response from the Excel MVPs and experts on the Daily Dose of Excel Web site was skeptical, with Juan Pablo Gonzalez linking the scare story to another current debate: "I guess this could probably used as another excuse to kill VBA in future versions of Excel (and Office)."

Jon Peltier pointed out that the article relied heavily on opinions from experts from companies that provided security services. "If they can convince their clients that problems exist, they can increase their revenues," he noted, outlining a classic IT industry "fear, uncertainty and doubt" marketing strategy.

Peltier's suggestion for minimizing malicious attacks was to use a virtual machine for Internet access, without anti-virus software. So far the only "infection" he has experienced has been from tracking cookies. "What the IT guys fear from letting users use Excel and VBA is the loss of control over those users," he added.

By John Stokdyk, technology editor for our sister site, AccountingWEB.co.uk

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