Microsoft issues biggest patch update in a year

Microsoft Corp. today rolled out 11 security updates that patch 17 vulnerabilities in Windows, Office, Internet Explorer, Internet Information Server (IIS) and several other components and technologies.

It was the most patch bulletins Microsoft’s has issued since February 2007, even though it yanked one expected update — scheduled last week to fix problems in VBScript and JScript — at the last minute. Five of the 11 were ranked “critical,” Microsoft’s highest rating in its four-step threat-scoring system. The others were pegged as “important,” the second-highest rating.

The sheer volume of flaws and fixes — added to the already large number of updates cranked out over the past two weeks by other vendors, including Apple Inc. and Adobe Systems Inc. — is what struck Andrew Storms, director of security operations at nCircle Network Security Inc.

“The volume of the last week is something no security team can staff for,” said Storms, referring to a wave of vulnerability disclosures and patches by developers of some of the Web’s most popular applications, including Adobe Reader, Apple’s QuickTime and Skype Ltd.’s flagship VoIP client. All have been plagued with, and patched, one or more bugs in the past week.

“It’s almost the worst case possible,” Storms said. “There’s so much firefighting going on that it comes down to deciding what risks are the most prevalent, and what can be mitigated without patching or fixing so that people can get to some of the hotter topics.”

Storms recommended that organizations first tackle the three Office-related bulletins in today’s Microsoft release before jumping back to the Reader update from last week to ensure that all copies of that popular PDF viewer have been patched. One of the Reader bugs has been exploited for at least several weeks.

MS08-009, MS08-012 and MS08-013 patched flaws in Microsoft Word, in Microsoft Publisher and in Office overall, respectively. Another bulletin, MS08-011, fixed a vulnerability in Microsoft Works, the company’s lowest-priced, entry-level suite. Because MS08-011 plugs a hole in Works’ file converter, however, it also puts users of Office 2003, including the most recent service pack, SP3, at risk.

Other bulletins addressed problems in IE, Active Directory, Windows Vista’s implementation of TCP/IP, IIS, Windows’ WebDAV technology and Windows’ use of OLE automation.

“It’s interesting that we’re still seeing the client side’s [vulnerabilities] as more critical than the server side,” noted Storms, when asked to pass judgment on the patch day as a whole. “That’s a complete flip from five years ago. Take MS08-003 as an example. It’s in Active Directory, which is at the core of the enterprise. But it’s only labeled ‘important’ because you need valid log-in credentials to exploit it.” He also pointed to the two IIS-related bulletins as examples of old-school problems that affect servers but pose less of a threat.

He contrasted those with the numerous client vulnerabilities in Windows or Microsoft’s applications, such as Office, Works and Internet Explorer, all of which were judged “critical” by the company.

Don Leatham, director of solutions and strategy at Lumension Security, noted the same long-standing trend. “The attack surface is moving up the stack into the application and away from the operating system,” said Leatham.

To emphasize his point, Leatham’s first-to-fix vulnerabilities today were — like Storms’ — in an application. “Two stand out: MS08-010 and MS08-007,” he said. “The first affects [Internet Explorer] across the board, IE6 and IE7 both, and it looks like there’s no mitigating factors for one.” In most security bulletins, Microsoft explains how, in some situations, users can reduce the severity of any exploit. In one of the four separate bugs patched by the IE bulletin, Microsoft admitted that it “has not identified any mitigating factors for this vulnerability.”

The WebDAV (Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning) flaw got Leatham’s second vote. “If there are organizations that remotely map driver letters or still use Web folders as a low-security solution for sharing files, they definitely need to look at 007,” said Leatham. Microsoft ranked the WebDAV bulletin as “critical.”

Overall, concluded Storms, there’s plenty to keep everyone busy. “We’ll do the Office ones first, then the IIS [bulletins], and then go back to the [Adobe Reader and] Acrobat vulnerabilities,” he said, referring to how his team would schedule its workload. “Then later, maybe next week, we’ll get to the rest of the Microsoft patches.”

The 11 security updates can be downloaded and installed via the Microsoft Update and Windows Update services, as well as through Windows Server Update Services.

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