Users Peeved at Microsoft Security Effort

Both browser patch and update notification service have customers stymied.

Microsoft Corp. customers are growing frustrated by a series of actions the company has taken that they say call into question its efforts to improve security.

Much of the ill will surrounds the recent release of a cumulative patch for Internet Explorer, which also contains a fix for a newly discovered critical vulnerability. Some users contacted by eWeek last week said that when they installed the patch on machines running Windows 98 and IE 5.5, the PCs failed to reboot and instead returned a "scandisk" error message. When the users tried to bring the machine up in safe mode, it froze, preventing further action.

"I dont know what [Microsoft] has sold us unsuspecting users. Stability isnt part of it," said an Australian user of IE, who declined to be identified. "The [Microsoft] cure is occasionally worse than the problem."

A Microsoft spokesman, in Redmond, Wash., said the company was unaware of any widespread problems with the patch.

The vulnerability in question, present in IE 5.5 and 6.0, is in the browsers cross-domain security model. The software performs incomplete security checks when certain object caching techniques are used in Web pages.

An attacker could exploit the flaw by sending the malicious code to a user in an HTML mail message or luring the user to a Web page containing the code. The attacker would then be able to execute arbitrary code on the users machine.

While some users had technical issues after installing the patch, others were unable to get the fix at all, thanks to problems with Microsofts Windows Update service. Windows Update is designed to deliver automatic notifications of patches and updates. Users can select files they want to download and have them delivered to their PCs.

However, some IE users who have made certain Microsoft-recommended changes to the security settings in their browsers have found it impossible to download patches without first reverting back to the less secure settings. For example, Windows Update requires that users first enable active scripting and the automatic download and initialization of ActiveX controls. Both of these technologies, while commonly employed on popular Web sites, can be used to exploit various security vulnerabilities.

Windows Update users also must have the security level in IE set to medium or lower, which would enable automatic downloads of some content and would allow the browser to take other actions without prompting users.


Customer complaints with recent Microsoft patches
  • Cumulative IE patch causes fatal error on some Windows 98 machines
  • Windows Update service requires users to remove some recommended security safeguards in IE to download patches
  • Windows Update sends alerts to customers saying an upgrade to IE 6.0 is a "critical" update
"In other words, to fix huge security holes in IE, I have to open huge security holes, allowing Microsoft to run arbitrary code on my computer at will," said Terry Roddy, an IE user and software engineer in Evanston, Ill.

Another user said Microsoft has begun using its Windows Critical Update Notification utility as a marketing tool. After receiving an alert from the utility, which is similar to Windows Update but delivers notices about critical security fixes only, the user went to the Microsoft site and discovered that the update was simply a pitch to upgrade to IE 6.0. "I read everything about the upgrade but saw nothing critical about the upgrade," said the user, who asked not to be named. "Their description is rife with sales copy and general ease-of-use-type stuff, but I saw nothing specifically about security, privacy protection or such."

The user didnt download the upgrade and continued to receive "critical" alerts about it. As a result, he now ignores all the alerts, missing some legitimate notifications, he said.