Windows bugs never really die

Because some PCs are never patched, pool of victims persists, says researcher

Hackers can successfully attack Windows PCs months -- even years -- after Microsoft Corp. fixes a flaw, a security expert said Thursday, because there's always a pool of unpatched systems.

According to data that Qualys Inc. culled from scans of more than 80 million machines, between 5% and 20% of all systems are never patched for any vulnerabilities, including those disclosed by Microsoft in its monthly security updates.

Qualys, a provider of on-demand IT security systems, tracked four vulnerability bulletins issued by Microsoft in 2008 and in each case found that a sizable fraction of the PCs it scanned had not been patched, even though in some cases more than a year had passed since Microsoft issued fixes.

The four updates, all labeled "critical" by Microsoft when they were released, included the following:

  • MS01-001, a two-patch update in January 2008 that plugged holes in three Windows TCP/IP protocols.

  • MS08-007, a single February 2008 patch for Windows' WebDAV Mini-Redirector, which defines how basic file functions such as Copy, Move, Delete and Create are performed using HTTP.

  • MS08-015, a one-fix update in March 2008 for a bug in Outlook, Microsoft's mail client, that could be exploited by tricking a user into visiting a malicious Web site.

  • MS08-021, a two-patch update released in April 2008 for Windows GDI, or graphics device interface, a frequently-fixed core component of the operating system.

Even as late as this year, MS08-021 had not been applied to 20% of the PCs that Qualys scanned. The percentage of machines lacking the MS08-015 update, on the other hand, dipped at times to about 5%.

"It's difficult to say why they haven't been patched," said Wolfgang Kandek, Qualys' chief technology officer. Kandek presented his findings at the RSA security conference in San Francisco. "It just baffles me. Some administrators are just doing their worst possible job patching."

Qualys' scans are conducted on machines owned by its clients, which are exclusively businesses -- predominantly large companies.

"Either they don't care, or they don't have enough resources to patch every machine," Kandek speculated.

Because some machines are never patched, there is always a ready reserve of potential victims, even for aging malware, Kandek continued. "Even very old worms can be successful," he said.

The notorious Conficker worm is a case in point. Though it's not old by any definition -- it debuted in November 2008 and just came to prominence in January 2009 -- Conficker's makers prey on PCs that have not been patched with an emergency update Microsoft issued last October. Last week, even after a media blitz about the worm's April 1 trigger, nearly 20% of the PCs Qualys scanned were without the MS08-067 update.

As if to flaunt that fact, the newest version of Conficker reactivated its ability to spread by exploiting the Windows bug.

Microsoft's products are not the only ones that never get completely patched, Kandek warned. Some of Adobe Systems Inc.'s applications are in the same boat. "There are always stragglers," Kandek said. "Microsoft Office is one of the biggest stragglers for patching, and Adobe Reader is another. They're just not on the map for many companies."

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