Microsoft on Thursday announced plans to ship one security bulletin on Tuesday, Sept. 13, to provide patches for a “critical” flaw in its Windows operating system.
As part of its advance notice mechanism, the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant said the security update will require a restart and can be detected with the MBSA (Microsoft Baseline Security Analyzer) tool.
The solitary bulletin will give IT administrators a temporary respite from patching—especially after the clean-up from the recent Zotob worm attacks—but to many in the security research community, it underscores Microsoft Corp.s sluggish approach to addressing known security vulnerabilities.
eEye Digital Security, a private research firm with headquarters in Aliso Viejo, Calif., maintains a Web page of Upcoming Advisories that have been validated by software vendors.
Next Tuesday, when Microsoft ships the Windows update, one of the eEye-discovered flaws will be 108 days overdue.
eEye starts counting overdue days a full 60 days after a vulnerability has been “validated” by a software vendor, which means that Microsoft has been aware of the security hole for more than five and a half months.
In all, eEye has reported nine vulnerabilities that have been validated by officials at the MSRC (Microsoft Security Response Center). Three of the nine flaws are more than two months overdue and all carry a “high severity” risk rating.
Customers at risk include users of the widely deployed Internet Explorer browser, the Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express mail clients, and various versions of Windows.
“Its safe to assume that once we find a flaw, someone else will probably find it. The problem here is that someone malicious might find it and exploit it before Microsoft can provide full protection,” said Steve Manzuik, product manager in eEyes research group.
“There are some extremely smart hackers out there using and sharing the tools that find these vulnerabilities. When Microsoft takes a long time to issue fixes, it sets up a dangerous situation,” Manzuik said in an interview with Ziff Davis Internet News.
“This month, Microsoft is only issuing one patch and we already know its not one of ours. That means that our overdue list will keep getting longer and longer,” Manzuik added.
eEye is not the only private research outfit finding and reporting vulnerabilities to Microsoft. Most companies do not keep a running tally of the flaws they report, and some keep the information under wraps until Microsoft ships the required update.
“This all goes back to the responsible disclosure debate,” said Thor Larholm, senior security researcher at PivX Solutions Inc., a Newport Beach, Calif.-based security consulting firm.
“The longer it takes Microsoft to address a known vulnerability, the higher the probability that one of the bad guys will find it and release the details to the public. Microsoft has a responsibility to get these fixes out quickly,” Larholm said.
Both Manzuik and Larholm acknowledged that Microsoft has improved significantly in its response to software security, but they argue that the company must find a way to avoid lengthy delays.
“Microsoft is no longer the worst offender when it comes to sitting on patches. Oracle has taken that crown,” Larholm said. “But I think theres still a culture at Microsoft that security is a PR issue that must be handled delicately. And thats a dangerous culture.”
“Overall, they have improved, theres no doubt about that. But unless they move faster on some of these high-impact vulnerabilities, well always deal with rogue researchers finding the same things,” Manzuik said.
Inevitably, zero-day exploits along with full details of the unpatched flaw are released on underground sites, putting millions of Microsoft customers at risk.
“It would be really nice to see Microsoft turn around a patch in between 60 and 90 days. Considering the size of the company and the way some of these Internet-facing software [apps] are complicated, the 90-day window isnt that bad. But when it creeps up to three and four months, it becomes unacceptable,” eEyes Manzuik said.
A spokesperson for the MSRC said Microsoft is still testing the reported vulnerabilities, and that patch quality will take precedence over time.
“Security response is a delicate balance of time and testing, and Microsoft will only issue an update when it has been fully tested and deemed a complete fix for the issue,” the spokesperson said in an interview.
“Microsoft has the ability to test on all platforms with a number of different tools and with the developers of each product. Microsoft is able to test more thoroughly than an independent researcher, and has a responsibility to get the update right. They will not compromise the accountability to customers,” she added.
“The responsibility is always to get it right for the customer.”