Microsoft Starts 2014 With Four Security Advisories

For the first time in more than a year, Microsoft is not including an Internet Explorer patch in a Patch Tuesday update. Is that a cause for concern?

Microsoft is out today with its first Patch Tuesday security update for 2014, issuing four security bulletins that address six different Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) issues in Windows, Office and Dynamics AX.

All four of the bulletins are rated as having "high" importance, which is one level below "critical." The MS14-001 bulletin details three CVEs in Microsoft Office that could potentially enable remote code execution. The MS14-002 and MS14-003 bulletins each provide a fix for Windows kernel-related vulnerabilities that could potentially have enabled an unauthorized privilege escalation.

The final bulletin is MS14-004, which provides a fix for a denial-of-service (DoS) vulnerability with Microsoft's Dynamic AX.

As Microsoft forecast in its advance notification last week, there is no Internet Explorer (IE) update, which is a surprise to some security experts.

Andrew Storms, senior director of DevOps for CloudPassage, told eWEEK that he was totally surprised, maybe even flabbergasted, that there is no IE update this month.

"I don't think it's a matter of there are no bugs in the IE backlog," Storms said. "It's probably more of a matter that Microsoft determined none of the bugs warranted a release this month, and I have to imagine that the holiday season had a bit to do with that."

Wolfgang Kandek, chief technology officer of Qualys, told eWEEK that he too was surprised by the lack of an IE update in the first Patch Tuesday of 2014.

"My understanding was that there would be a monthly release, but apparently there were no fixes ready to go in time for a January release," Kandek said.

Tyler Reguly, security research and development manager for Tripwire, told eWEEK that in his view it's about time that there was a month without an IE patch update.

"I'm sure that we'll get back to regular IE patch drops in the near future (aka February)." Reguly said.

The low patch count overall is also noteworthy, but it doesn't necessarily imply that Microsoft is missing anything urgent either. Reguly, Kandek and Storms all said they are unaware of any active zero-day exploits that require Microsoft's immediate attention. That said, Kandek noted that the fact there were only four bulletins doesn't necessarily imply that vulnerabilities don't continue to persist.

"I believe we are very far away from that state still, as some of the NSA [National Security Agency]-related news has shown," Kandek said. "I suspect it is just an outcome of the workflow at Microsoft and the submitting researchers and organizations such as ZDI and iDefense."

Reguly also sees the holiday season as being a possible root cause for the low patch count. It's just a simple fact of life that productivity, even in vital areas like computer security, decreases around big holidays, he said.

Storms has a somewhat more cynical view of the patch count.

"Aside from fixing any known zero-days, what Microsoft releases each month is predominately a mystery anyway," Storms said.

For its part, Microsoft doesn't see its patching process as a mystery. Dustin Childs, group manager of Microsoft Trustworthy Computing, told eWEEK that Microsoft carefully investigates newly discovered vulnerabilities. Updates for any discovered vulnerabilities are then rigorously tested on the affected operating systems and applications, and patches are delivered when they are ready.

"We carefully review and test each of these updates to ensure their quality and that they have been evaluated thoroughly for application compatibility," Childs said. "Once an update is built, it must be tested with the different operating systems and applications it affects, then localized for many markets and languages across the globe."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.