Microsoft downplays stealth update concerns

Windows must silently update its Update feature, says company

Microsoft last Thursday essentially called the concerns over undercover updates to Windows XP and Windows Vista a tempest in a teapot, saying that silent modifications to the Windows Update (WU) software have been a longtime practice and are needed to keep users patched.

"Windows Update is a service that primarily delivers updates to Windows," said Nate Clinton, program manager in the WU group on the team's blog Thursday. "To ensure ongoing service reliability and operation, we must also update and enhance the Windows Update service itself, including its client-side software."

Microsoft was moved to respond after the popular "Windows Secrets" newsletter looked into complaints that WU had modified numerous files in both XP and Vista, even though users had set the operating system to not install updates without their permission. In many cases, users who dug into Windows' event logs found that the updates had been done in the middle of the night.

Windows gives users some flexibility in how their PCs retrieve and install updates and patches from the company's servers. In Vista, for example, users can turn off Automatic Updates entirely; allow the operating system to check for, but neither download or install, any fixes; or allow it to download files but not install them.

Clinton tackled the stealth install issue in some detail. "One question we have been asked is why do we update the client code for Windows Update automatically if the customer did not opt into automatically installing updates without further notice? The answer is simple: Any user who chooses to use Windows Update either expected updates to be installed or to at least be notified that updates were available."

Failing to do so, he argued, would have ultimately run counter to what a user wants and needs. "Had we failed to update the service automatically, users would not have been able to successfully check for updates and, in turn, users would not have had updates installed automatically or received expected notifications." The result, he said, would be to leave users at risk to attack via vulnerabilities Microsoft has patched. "That would lead users to believe that they were secure, even though there was no installation and/or notification of upgrades."

In fact, the practice has been going on for some time, Clinton claimed. "The Windows Update client is configured to automatically check for updates anytime a system uses the WU service, independent of the selected settings for handling updates. This has been the case since we introduced the Automatic Update feature in Windows XP. In fact, WU has autoupdated itself many times in the past," he said.

That would be news to the majority of people who filled several threads on Microsoft's own support newsgroups starting in late August. "I found this information by myself, checking the Windows directories," griped someone identified as Frank. "But the point is that I didn't allow the update (Automatic Update properties on 'notify') and there is no information about this update on Microsoft [Web pages]. Why [didn't] Microsoft publish any information about this update?"

Clinton also disputed user accounts of stealth updates to WU even when they had completely disabled the automatic update feature in the operating system. "WU does not automatically update itself when Automatic Updates is turned off, this only happens when the customer is using WU to automatically install upgrades or to be notified of updates," said Clinton.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.
Gregg Keizer

Gregg Keizer

Computerworld
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Aysha Strobbe

Microsoft Office 365/HP Spectre x360

Microsoft Office continues to make a student’s life that little bit easier by offering reliable, easy to use, time-saving functionality, while continuing to develop new features that further enhance what is already a formidable collection of applications

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?