What You Need to Know About the Latest Java Exploit
Q: What is Java, anyway?
A: Java is a programming language and computing platform that powers programs including utilities, games, and business applications. According to Java maker Oracle Corp., Java runs on more than 850 million personal computers worldwide, and on billions of devices worldwide, including mobile and TV devices. It is required by some Web sites that use it to run interactive games and applications.
Q: So what is all the fuss about?
A: Researchers have discovered that cybercrooks are attacking a previously unknown security hole in Java 7 that can be used to seize control over a computer if a user visits a compromised or malicious Web site.
Q: Yikes. How do I protect my computer?
A: The version of Java that runs on most consumer PCs includes a browser plug-in. According to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University‘s CERT, unplugging the Java plugin from the browser essentially prevents exploitation of the vulnerability. Not long ago, disconnecting Java from the browser was not straightforward, but with the release of the latest version ofJava 7 — Update 10 — Oracle included a very simple method for removing Java from the browser. You can find their instructions for doing this here.
Q: How do I know if I have Java installed, and if so, which version?
A: The simplest way is to visit this link and click the “Do I have Java” link, just below the big red “Download Java” button.
Q: I’m using Java 6. Does that mean I don’t have to worry about this?
A: There have been conflicting findings on this front. It’s important not to get too hung up on which versions are affected, as this could become a moving target. Also, a new zero-day flaw is discovered in Java several times a year. That’s why you should either uninstall Java completely or unplug it from the browser no matter what version you’re using. We realize certain business requirements will not allow for this. See the next questions below.
Q: A site or application I use often requires the Java plugin to be enabled. What should I do?
A: You could downgrade to Java 6, but that is not a very good solution. Oracle will stop supporting Java 6 at the end of February 2013, and will soon be transitioning Java 6 users to Java 7 anyway. If you need Java for specific Web sites, a better solution is to adopt a two-browser approach. If you normally browse the Web with Firefox, for example, consider disabling the Java plugin in Firefox, and then using an alternative browser (Chrome, IE9, Safari, etc.) with Java enabled to browse only the site(s) that require(s) it.
Q: I am using a Mac, so I should be okay, right?
A: Not exactly. Experts have found that this flaw in Java 7 can be exploited to foist malware on Mac and Linux systems, in addition to Microsoft Windows machines. Java is made to run programs across multiple platforms, which makes it especially dangerous when new flaws in it are discovered. For instance, the Flashback worm that infected more than 600,000 Macs wiggled into OS X systems via a Java flaw. Oracle’s instructions include advice on how to unplug Java from Safari. I should note that Apple has not provided a version of Java for OS X beyond 6, but users can still download and install Java 7 on Mac systems. However, it appears that in response to this threat, Apple has taken steps to block Java from running on OS X systems.
Q: I don’t browse random sites or visit bad sites, so I shouldn’t have to worry about this, correct?
A: Wrong. This vulnerability is mainly being exploited by exploit packs, which are crimeware tools made to be stitched into Web sites so that when visitors come to the site with vulnerable/outdated browser plugins (like this Java bug), the site can silently install malware on the visitor’s PC. Exploit packs can be just as easily stitched into porn sites as they can be inserted into legitimate, hacked Web sites. All it takes is for the attackers to be able to insert one line of code into a compromised Web site.
Q: I’ve read in several places that this is the first time that the U.S. government has urged computer users to remove or wholesale avoid using a particular piece of software because of a widespread threat. Is this true?
A: Not really. During previous high-alert situations, CERT has advised Windows users to avoid using Internet Explorer. In this case, CERT is not really recommending that users uninstall Java: just that users unplug Java from their Web browser.
Q: I’m pretty sure that my Windows PC has Java installed, but I can’t seem to locate the Java Control Panel from the Windows Start Menu or Windows Control Panel. What gives?
A: According to CERT’s Dormann, due to what appears to potentially be a bug in the Java installer, the Java Control Panel applet may be missing on some Windows systems. In such cases, the Java Control Panel applet may be launched by finding and executing javacpl.exe manually. This file is likely to be found in
C:\Program Files\Java\jre7\bin or
C:\Program Files (x86)\Java\jre7\bin.
Q: I can’t remember the last time I used Java, and it doesn’t look like I even need this program anymore. Should I keep it?
A: Java is not as widely used as it once was, and most users probably can get by without having the program installed at all. I have long recommended that users remove Java unless they have a specific use for it. If you discover later that you really do need Java, it is trivial and free to reinstall it.
Q: This is all well and good advice for consumers, but I manage many PCs in a business environment. Is there a way to deploy Java but keep the plugin disconnected from the browser?
A: CERT advises that system administrators wishing to deploy Java 7 Update 10 or later with the “Enable Java content in the browser” feature disabled can invoke the Java installer with the WEB_JAVA=0 command-line option. More details are available in the Java documentation.
Oracle has released a software update to fix a critical security vulnerability in its Java software that miscreants and malware have been exploiting to break into vulnerable computers.
Java 7 Update 11 fixes a critical flaw (CVE-2013-0422) in Java 7 Update 10 and earlier versions of Java 7. The update is available via Oracle’s Web site, or can be downloaded from with Java via the Java Control Panel. Existing users should be able to update by visiting the Windows Control Panel and clicking the Java icon, or by searching for “Java” and clicking the Update Now button from the Update tab.
This update also changes the way Java handles Web applications. According to Oracle’s advisory: “The default security level for Java applets and web start applications has been increased from “Medium” to “High”. This affects the conditions under which unsigned (sandboxed) Java web applications can run. Previously, as long as you had the latest secure Java release installed applets and web start applications would continue to run as always. With the “High” setting the user is always warned before any unsigned application is run to prevent silent exploitation.”