Posts Tagged: google


18
Aug 14

Lorem Ipsum: Of Good & Evil, Google & China

Imagine discovering a secret language spoken only online by a knowledgeable and learned few. Over a period of weeks, as you begin to tease out the meaning of this curious tongue and ponder its purpose, the language appears to shift in subtle but fantastic ways, remaking itself daily before your eyes. And just when you are poised to share your findings with the rest of the world, the entire thing vanishes.

loremipsumThis fairly describes my roller coaster experience of curiosity, wonder and disappointment over the past few weeks, as I’ve worked alongside security researchers in an effort to understand how “lorem ipsum” — common placeholder text on countless Web sites — could be transformed into so many apparently geopolitical and startlingly modern phrases when translated from Latin to English using Google Translate. (If you have no idea what “lorem ipsum” is, skip ahead to a brief primer here).

Admittedly, this blog post would make more sense if readers could fully replicate the results described below using Google Translate. However, as I’ll explain later, something important changed in Google’s translation system late last week that currently makes the examples I’ll describe impossible to reproduce.

CHINA, NATO, SEXY, SEXY

It all started a few months back when I received a note from Lance James, head of cyber intelligence at Deloitte. James pinged me to share something discovered by FireEye researcher Michael Shoukry and another researcher who wished to be identified only as “Kraeh3n.” They noticed a bizarre pattern in Google Translate: When one typed “lorem ipsum” into Google Translate, the default results (with the system auto-detecting Latin as the language) returned a single word: “China.”

Capitalizing the first letter of each word changed the output to “NATO” — the acronym for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Reversing the words in both lower- and uppercase produced “The Internet” and “The Company” (the “Company” with a capital “C” has long been a code word for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency). Repeating and rearranging the word pair with a mix of capitalization generated even stranger results. For example, “lorem ipsum ipsum ipsum Lorem” generated the phrase “China is very very sexy.”

Until very recently, the words on the left were transformed to the words on the right using Google Translate.

Until very recently, the words on the left were transformed to the words on the right using Google Translate.

Kraeh3n said she discovered the strange behavior while proofreading a document for a colleague, a document that had the standard lorem ipsum placeholder text. When she began typing “l-o-r..e..” and saw “China” as the result, she knew something was strange.

“I saw words like Internet, China, government, police, and freedom and was curious as to how this was happening,” Kraeh3n said. “I immediately contacted Michael Shoukry and we began looking into it further.”

And so the duo started testing the limits of these two words using a mix of capitalization and repetition. Below is just one of many pages of screenshots taken from their results:

ipsumlorem

The researchers wondered: What was going on here? Has someone outside of Google figured out how to map certain words to different meanings in Google Translate? Was it a secret or covert communications channel? Perhaps a form of communication meant to bypass the censorship erected by the Chinese government with the Great Firewall of China? Or was this all just some coincidental glitch in the Matrix?

For his part, Shoukry checked in with contacts in the U.S. intelligence industry, quietly inquiring if divulging his findings might in any way jeopardize important secrets. Weeks went by and his sources heard no objection. One thing was for sure, the results were subtly changing from day to day, and it wasn’t clear how long these two common but obscure words would continue to produce the same results.

“While Google translate may be incorrect in the translations of these words, it’s puzzling why these words would be translated to things such as ‘China,’ ‘NATO,’ and ‘The Free Internet,’” Shoukry said. “Could this be a glitch? Is this intentional? Is this a way for people to communicate? What is it?”

When I met Shoukry at the Black Hat security convention in Las Vegas earlier this month, he’d already alerted Google to his findings. Clearly, it was time for some intense testing, and the clock was already ticking: I was convinced (and unfortunately, correct) that much of it would disappear at any moment. Continue reading →


12
May 14

Teen Arrested for 30+ Swattings, Bomb Threats

A 16-year-old male from Ottawa, Canada has been arrested for allegedly making at least 30 fraudulent calls to emergency services across North America over the past few months. The false alarms — two of which targeted this reporter — involved calling in phony bomb threats and multiple attempts at “swatting” — a hoax in which the perpetrator spoofs a call about a hostage situation or other violent crime in progress in the hopes of tricking police into responding at a particular address with deadly force.

po2-swatbkOn March 9, a user on Twitter named @ProbablyOnion (possibly NSFW) started sending me rude and annoying messages. A month later (and several weeks after blocking him on Twitter), I received a phone call from the local police department. It was early in the morning on Apr. 10, and the cops wanted to know if everything was okay at our address.

Since this was not the first time someone had called in a fake hostage situation at my home, the call I received came from the police department’s non-emergency number, and they were unsurprised when I told them that the Krebs manor and all of its inhabitants were just fine.

Minutes after my local police department received that fake notification, @ProbablyOnion was bragging on Twitter about swatting me, including me on his public messages: “You have 5 hostages? And you will kill 1 hostage every 6 times and the police have 25 minutes to get you $100k in clear plastic.” Another message read: “Good morning! Just dispatched a swat team to your house, they didn’t even call you this time, hahaha.”

I told this user privately that targeting an investigative reporter maybe wasn’t the brightest idea, and that he was likely to wind up in jail soon. But @ProbablyOnion was on a roll: That same day, he hung out his for-hire sign on Twitter, with the following message: “want someone swatted? Tweet me  their name, address and I’ll make it happen.” Continue reading →


23
Feb 14

iOS Update Quashes Dangerous SSL Bug

Apple on Friday released a software update to fix a serious security weakness in its iOS mobile operating system that allows attackers to read and modify encrypted communications on iPhones, iPads and other iOS devices. The company says it is working to produce a patch for the same flaw in desktop and laptop computers powered by its OS X operating system.

iossslThe update — iOS 7.0.6 — addresses a glaring vulnerability in the way Apple devices handle encrypted communications. The flaw allows an attacker to intercept, read or modify encrypted email, Web browsing, Tweets and other transmitted data, provided the attacker has control over the WiFi or cellular network used by the vulnerable device.

There has been a great deal of speculation and hand-waving about whether this flaw was truly a mistake or if it was somehow introduced intentionally as a backdoor. And it’s not yet clear how long this bug has been included in Apple’s software. In any case, if you have an iPhone or iPad or other iOS device, please take a moment to apply this fix.

Generally, I advise users to avoid downloading and installing security updates when they are using public WiFi or other untrusted networks. On the surface at least, it would seem that the irony of this situation for most users is that iOS devices will download updates automatically as long as users are connected to a WiFi network. But as several folks have already pointed out on Twitter, Apple uses code-signing on iOS and app updates to ensure that rogue code can’t be pushed to devices.

I will update this post when Apple ships the patch for OS X systems. For now, it may be wise to avoid using Safari on OS X systems. As Dan Goodin at Ars Technica writes, “because the Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox browsers appear to be unaffected by the flaw, people should also consider using those browsers when possible, although they shouldn’t be considered a panacea.”

For a deeper dive on this vulnerability and its implications, check out this piece by Larry Seltzer at ZDNet, and this analysis by Google’s Adam Langley.

Update: Apple has fixed this and a number of other important issues with OS X, in this release.


5
Dec 13

How Many Zero-Days Hit You Today?

On any given day, nation-states and criminal hackers have access to an entire arsenal of zero-day vulnerabilities  – undocumented and unpatched software flaws that can be used to silently slip past most organizations’ digital defenses, new research suggests.  That sobering conclusion comes amid mounting evidence that thieves and cyberspies are ramping up spending to acquire and stockpile these digital armaments.

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Security experts have long suspected that governments and cybercriminals alike are stockpiling zero-day bugs: After all, the thinking goes, if the goal is to exploit these weaknesses in future offensive online attacks, you’d better have more than a few tricks up your sleeve because it’s never clear whether or when those bugs will be independently discovered by researchers or fixed by the vendor. Those suspicions were confirmed very publicly in 2010 with the discovery of Stuxnet, a weapon apparently designed to delay Iran’s nuclear ambitions and one that relied upon at least four zero-day vulnerabilities.

Documents recently leaked by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden indicate that the NSA spent more than $25 million this year alone to acquire software vulnerabilities from vendors. But just how many software exploits does that buy, and what does that say about the number of zero-day flaws in private circulation on any given day?

These are some of the questions posed by Stefan Frei, research director for Austin, Texas-based NSS Labs. Frei pored over reports from and about some of those private vendors — including boutique exploit providers like Endgame Systems, Exodus Intelligence, Netragard, ReVuln and VUPEN – and concluded that jointly these firms alone have the capacity to sell more than 100 zero-day exploits per year.

According to Frei, if we accept that the average zero-day exploit persists for about 312 days before it is detected (an estimate made by researchers at Symantec Research Labs), this means that these firms probably provide access to at least 85 zero-day exploits on any given day of the year. These companies all say they reserve the right to restrict which organizations, individuals and nation states may purchase their products, but they all expressly do not share information about exploits and flaws with the affected software vendors.

Frei's minimum estimate of exploits offered by boutique exploit providers each year.

Frei’s minimum estimate of exploits offered by boutique exploit providers each year.

KNOWN UNKNOWNS

That approach stands apart from the likes of HP TippingPoint‘s Zero-Day Initiative (ZDI) and Verisign‘s iDefense Vulnerability Contributor Program (VCP), which pay researchers in exchange for the rights to their vulnerability research. Both ZDI and iDefense also manage the communication with the affected vendors, ship stopgap protection for the vulnerabilities to their customers, and otherwise keep mum on the flaws until the vendor ships an update to fix the bugs.

Frei also took stock of the software vulnerabilities collected by these two companies, and found that between 2010 and 2012, the ZDI and VCP programs together published 1,026 flaws, of which 425 (44 percent) targeted flaws in Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, Sun and Adobe products. The average time from purchase to publication was 187 days.

“On any given day during these three years, the VCP and ZDI programs possessed 58 unpublished vulnerabilities affecting five vendors, or 152 vulnerabilities total,” Frei wrote in a research paper released today.

vcp-zdi

Frei notes that the VCP and ZDI programs use the information they purchase only for the purpose of building better protection for their customers, and since they share the information with the software vendors in order to develop and release patches, the overall risk is comparatively low. Also, the vulnerabilities collected and reported by VCP and ZDI are not technically zero-days, since one important quality of a zero-day is that it is used in-the-wild to attack targets before the responsible vendor can ship a patch to fix the problem.

In any case, Frei says his analysis clearly demonstrates that critical vulnerability information is available in significant quantities for private groups, for extended periods and at a relatively low cost.

“So everybody knows there are zero days, but when we talk to C-Level executives, very often we find that these guys don’t have a clue, because they tell us, ‘Yeah, but we’ve never been compromised’,” Frei said in an interview.  “And we always ask them, ‘How do you know?’”

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14
Aug 13

Buying Battles in the War on Twitter Spam

The success of social networking community Twitter has given rise to an entire shadow economy that peddles dummy Twitter accounts by the thousands, primarily to spammers, scammers and malware purveyors. But new research on identifying bogus accounts has helped Twitter to drastically deplete the stockpile of existing accounts for sale, and holds the promise of driving up costs for both vendors of these shady services and their customers.

Image: Twitterbot.info

Image: Twitterbot.info

Twitter prohibits the sale and auto-creation of accounts, and the company routinely suspends accounts created in violation of that policy. But according to researchers from George Mason University, the International Computer Science Institute and the University of California, Berkeley, Twitter traditionally has done so only after these fraudulent accounts have been used to spam and attack legitimate Twitter users.

Seeking more reliable methods of detecting auto-created accounts before they can be used for abuse, the researchers approached Twitter last year for the company’s blessing to purchase credentials from a variety of Twitter account merchants. Permission granted, the researchers spent more than $5,000 over ten months buying accounts from at least 27 different underground sellers.

In a report to be presented at the USENIX security conference in Washington, D.C. today, the research team details its experience in purchasing more than 121,000 fraudulent Twitter accounts of varying age and quality, at prices ranging from $10 to $200 per one thousand accounts.

The research team quickly discovered that nearly all fraudulent Twitter account merchants employ a range of countermeasures to evade the technical hurdles that Twitter erects to stymie the automated creation of new accounts.

“Our findings show that merchants thoroughly understand Twitter’s existing defenses against automated registration, and as a result can generate thousands of accounts with little disruption in availability or instability in pricing,” the paper reads. “We determine that merchants can provide thousands of accounts within 24 hours at a price of $0.02 – $0.10 per account.”

SPENDING MONEY TO MAKE MONEY

For example, to fulfill orders for fraudulent Twitter accounts, merchants typically pay third-party services to help solve those squiggly-letter CAPTCHA challenges. I’ve written here and here about these virtual sweatshops, which rely on low-paid workers in China, India and Eastern Europe who earn pennies per hour deciphering the puzzles.

topemailThe Twitter account sellers also must verify new accounts with unique email addresses, and they tend to rely on services that sell cheap, auto-created inboxes at HotmailYahoo and Mail.ru, the researchers found. “The failure of email confirmation as a barrier directly stems from pervasive account abuse tied to web mail providers,” the team wrote. “60 percent of the accounts were created with Hotmail, followed by yahoo.com and mail.ru.”

Bulk-created accounts at these Webmail providers are among the cheapest of the free email providers, probably because they lack additional account creation verification mechanisms required by competitors like Google, which relies on phone verification. Compare the prices at this bulk email merchant: 1,000 Yahoo accounts can be had for $10 (1 cent per account), and the same number Hotmail accounts go for $12. In contrast, it costs $200 to buy 1,000 Gmail accounts.

topcountriesFinally, the researchers discovered that Twitter account merchants very often spread their new account registrations across thousands of Internet addresses to avoid Twitter’s IP address blacklisting and throttling. They concluded that some of the larger account sellers have access to large botnets of hacked PCs that can be used as proxies during the registration process.

“Our analysis leads us to believe that account merchants either own or rent access to thousands of compromised hosts to evade IP defenses,” the researchers wrote.

Damon McCoy, an assistant professor of computer science at GMU and one of the authors of the study, said the top sources of the proxy IP addresses were computers in developing countries like India, Ukraine, Thailand, Mexico and Vietnam.  “These are countries where the price to buy installs [installations of malware that turns PCs into bots] is relatively low,” McCoy said.

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26
Jul 13

Security Vendors: Do No Harm, Heal Thyself

Security companies would do well to build their products around the physician’s code: “First, do no harm.” The corollary to that oath borrows from another medical mantra: “Security vendor, heal thyself. And don’t take forever to do it! ”

crackedsymOn Thursday, Symantec quietly released security updates to fix serious vulnerabilities in its Symantec Web Gateway, a popular line of security appliances designed to help “protect organizations against multiple types of Web-borne malware.” Symantec issued the updates more than five months after receiving notice of the flaws from Vienna, Austria based SEC Consult Vulnerability Lab, which said attackers could chain together several of the flaws to completely compromise the appliances.

“An attacker can get unauthorized access to the appliance and plant backdoors or access configuration files containing credentials for other systems (eg. Active Directory/LDAP credentials) which can be used in further attacks,” SEC Consult warned in an advisory published in coordination with the patches from Symantec. “Since all web traffic passes through the appliance, interception of HTTP as well as the plain text form of HTTPS traffic (if SSL Deep Inspection feature in use), including sensitive information like passwords and session cookies is possible.”

Big Yellow almost certainly dodged a bullet with this coordinated disclosure, and it should be glad that the bugs weren’t found by a researcher at NATO, for example; Earlier this month, security vendor McAfee disclosed multiple vulnerabilities in its ePolicy Orchestrator, a centralized security management product. The researcher in that case said he would disclose his findings within 30 days of notifying the company, and McAfee turned around an advisory in less than a week.

Interestingly, Google’s security team is backing a new seven-day security deadline that would allow researchers to make serious vulnerabilities public a week after notifying a company. Google says a week-long disclosure timeline is appropriate for critical vulnerabilities that are under active exploitation, and that its standing recommendation is that companies should fix critical vulnerabilities in 60 days, or, if a  fix is not possible, they should notify the public about the risk and offer workarounds.

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26
Jun 13

How Much is Your Gmail Worth?

If you use Gmail and have ever wondered how much your account might be worth to cyber thieves, have a look at Cloudsweeper, a new service launching this week that tries to price the value of your Gmail address based on the number of retail accounts you have tied to it and the current resale value of those accounts in the underground.

My Gmail was priced at $28.90.

My Gmail was priced at $28.90.

The brainchild of researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Cloudsweeper’s account theft audit tool scans your inbox and presents a breakdown of how many accounts connected to that address an attacker could seize if he gained access to your Gmail. Cloudsweeper then tries to put an aggregate price tag on your inbox, a figure that’s computed by totaling the resale value of other account credentials that crooks can steal if they hijack your email.

In a blog post earlier this month titled The Value of a Hacked Email Account, I noted that many people do not realize how much they have invested in their email account until that account is in the hands of cyber crooks. That post quoted prices from one seller in the cybercrime underground who buys compromised accounts, such as hacked iTunes accounts for $8, or credentials to Groupon.com for $5, for example.

Chris Kanich, assistant professor at UIC’s computer science department and principal organizer of the project, said Cloudsweeper’s pricing model is built on prices collected from multiple sellers across multiple underground forums and services. I ran one of my Gmail accounts through Cloudsweeper, and it determined my account would be worth approximately $28.90 to bad guys. While this is not a Gmail account I use every day, I was surprised at how many third party services I had signed up for using it over the years. According to Cloudsweeper, bad guys with access to my account could also hijack my accounts at Amazon, Apple, Groupon, Hulu, NeweggPaypal, Skype, UPlay and Yahoo, to name a few.

Cloudsweeper uses the Open Authentication (OAuth2) protocol to connect to your Gmail account and search through messages. OAuth is an open standard for online authorization, and using it with Cloudsweeper does not require you to type in your password as long as you are already logged into the Gmail account that you’d like scanned. Cloudsweeper doesn’t keep your credentials, and it forgets about your visit and inbox after you log out of the service, or within 60 minutes of inactivity.

PLAIN TEXT OFFENDERS

Prior to performing a scan, the service asks users if they wish to participate in a study, which Kanich said gathers and securely stores non-personally identifiable information about Cloudsweeper users who opt-in. That data includes how many types of accounts each user has tied to their Gmail. The study also draws on data from the second core feature of Cloudsweeper: The ability to discover and then redact or encrypt passwords that various services may send to users in plain text.

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25
Jun 13

Web Badness Knows No Bounds

If your strategy for remaining safe and secure online is mainly to avoid visiting dodgy Web sites, it’s time to consider a new approach. Data released today by Google serves as a welcome reminder that drive-by malware attacks are far more likely to come from hacked, legitimate Web sites than from sites set up by attackers to intentionally host and distribute malicious software.

Today, Google released a truckload of data from its Safe Browsing program, which flags and warns users about more than 10,000 suspicious and malicious Web sites each day. The information clearly shows that gone are the days when folks could avoid giving their computers a nasty little rash simply by staying out of the Internet’s red-light districts (networks with large aggregations of porn and piracy sites, for example).

Hacked, malicious Web sites far exceed malware sites constructed by attackers. Source: Google

Hacked, malicious Web sites far exceed malware sites constructed by attackers. Source: Google

At the same time, some places on the Internet clearly are far more dangerous than others, Google’s data sets show. Have a look at the following graphic, which lists the most hostile Internet providers in the United States (the U.S. is currently responsible for just 2 percent of the world’s malicious sites, Google says).

Concentrations of hacked and malicious sites at U.S. Internet providers.Source: Google

Concentrations of hacked and malicious sites at U.S. Internet providers.Source: Google

The most malicious U.S. network listed by Google — a data center run by a company in New York called Pilosoft — is no stranger to lists charting the top sources of badness online. Pilosoft figured prominently in Operation Ghost Click, a U.S. Justice Department takedown targeting the DNS Changer botnet, which had a significant portion of its operations based at Pilosoft. Google says it has scanned 13 percent of Pilosoft’s network, and found that more than half of the sites it scanned were malicious.

Other top badness concentrations have a history of courting malware purveyors. Ask Google’s report to display the most densely malicious ISPs regardless of country and you’ll notice some interesting names float to the top of the list. Among them, Santrex Internet Services, is a well-known offshore bulletproof hosting provider based in the Seychelles.

Some networks are completely overrun with malicious sites, and some actively seek out this condition.

Some networks are completely overrun with malicious sites, and some actively seek out this condition.

Of course, more mainstream networks and ISPs also are constantly battling malicious sites within their borders.  It’s worth noting that 22 percent of the sites hosted at one section of the network run by major ISP Comcast (AS20214)  are malicious, according to Google, although the company says it has scanned only 4 percent of this portion Comcast’s network so far. Google’s data is broken down by “autonomous system” (AS) numbers — which are basically a numerical way of keeping track of networks — and a large ISP may control numerous ASes.

Several other Comcast ASes are listed in the first few pages of Google’s index of U.S.-based badness. To be fair, Comcast is the nation’s largest cable Internet provider, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that it hosts so many compromised sites. However, Comcast’s largest competitor in the United States — Verizon — doesn’t appear until page 19 of Google’s results (with 5 percent of scanned sites malicious and 5 percent of the network scanned).

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14
Jun 13

Iranian Elections Bring Lull in Bank Attacks

For nearly nine months, hacker groups thought to be based in Iran have been launching large-scale cyberattacks designed to knock U.S. bank Websites offline. But those assaults have subsided over the past few weeks as Iranian hacker groups have begun turning their attention toward domestic targets, launching sophisticated phishing attacks against fellow citizens leading up to today’s presidential election there.

Phishing email targeting Iranians. Source: Google.

Phishing email targeting Iranians. Source: Google.

Since September 2012, nearly 50 U.S. financial institutions have been targeted in over 200 distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. A Middle Eastern hacking collective known as the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Cyber Fighters has claimed credit for the assaults, and U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly blamed the attacks on hacker groups backed by the Iranian government.

But roughly three weeks ago, experts began noticing that the attacks had mysteriously stopped.

“We haven’t seen anything for about three weeks now,” said Bill Nelson, president and CEO of the Financial Services Information Sharing and Analysis Center (FS-ISAC), an industry coalition that disseminates data about cyber threats to member financial institutions. “It’s not clear why [the attacks stopped], but there are a lot of things going on in Iran right now, particularly the presidential elections.”

Meanwhile, data collected by Google suggests that the attackers are focusing their skills and firepower internally, perhaps to gather intelligence about groups and individuals supporting specific candidates running for Iran’s presidential seat. In a blog post published this week, Google said that it is tracking a “significant jump” in the overall volume of phishing activity in and around Iran.

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11
Jun 13

Adobe, Microsoft Patch Flash, Windows

Patch Tuesday is again upon us: Adobe today issued updates for Flash Player and AIR, fixing the same critical vulnerability in both products. Microsoft‘s patch bundle of five updates addresses 23 vulnerabilities in Windows, Internet Explorer, and Office, including one bug that is already being actively exploited.

crackedwinA majority of the vulnerabilities fixed in Microsoft’s June patch batch — 19 of them — are addressed in a cumulative update for Internet Explorer (MS13-047). The other fix that Microsoft called specific attention to is MS13-051, which tackles a flaw in Office that “could allow remote code execution if a user opens a specially crafted Office document..or previews or opens a specially crafted email message in Outlook while using Microsoft Word as the email reader.”

This Office flaw, which is present in the latest versions of Office 2003 and Microsoft Office for Mac 2011, is already being exploited in targeted attacks, Microsoft said. According to the company’s advisory, this vulnerability was reported by Google. These attacks fit the profile of previous zer0-day incidents, which use targeted email lures and previously unknown vulnerabilities to break into high-value targets.

“When Google encounters flaws that exploit users’ computers, even when the flaws are in other companies’ software, we take strong action to mitigate those attacks,” a Google spokesperson said in response to a request for comment. “Based on the exploit and the way it has been utilized by attackers, we strongly believe the attacks to be associated with a nation-state organization.”

Adobe’s Flash and AIR updates also fix a critical bug that was reported by Google’s security team, although Adobe says it is not aware of any exploits or attacks in the wild against the vulnerability address in its update. The latest Flash version is 11.7.700.224 for Windows and 11.7.700.225 for Mac OS X.  This link will tell you which version of Flash your browser has installed. IE10 and Chrome should auto-update their versions of Flash. If your version of Chrome is not yet updated to v. 11.7.700.225, you may just need to restart the browser.

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