Microsoft slates seven patches next week

Flaws in Windows and Internet Explorer to be fixed

Microsoft promised to end the patch year with a bang by scheduling seven security updates for next Tuesday to fix flaws in Windows and Internet Explorer.

Windows Vista, the one-year-old operating system that Microsoft pledged was its most secure ever, will be affected by five of the seven updates. "That's no small percentage," noted Andrew Storms, director of security operations at nCircle. "The perpetuates the fact that even though Microsoft said it was secure, it still needs plenty of patches."

Of the seven bulletins Microsoft expects to release December 11, three will be rated "critical" -- Microsoft's most dire ranking -- while the remaining four will be labeled "important," the next-lower rating. As usual, the company disclosed a limited amount of information about next week's updates in a prepatch notification posted to its Web site this morning.

Only one of the seven is a sure bet, Storms said, pointing to a Windows update pegged as important that will affect Windows XP and Windows Server 2003. "The Macrovision patch is the most likely candidate for what they're calling bulletin 5," said Storms.

Early last month, Microsoft confirmed that attackers were actively exploiting a bug in third-party anti-piracy software bundled with Windows. The software, which Microsoft licenses from Macrovision Inc., had been updated for Vista, which was why that OS was not at risk. Although Macrovision quickly issued a replacement driver for Windows XP and Server 2003, Microsoft said it needed time to prepare and test the update, which meant it missed the November patch deadline.

"The rest of these are a complete surprise to me," admitted Storms. With one exception, he also hesitated at guessing the contents of the remaining half-dozen updates. His one prediction: "Bulletin 7 might be the fix for the WPAD vulnerability."

On Monday, the Microsoft Security Response Center advised users of a bug in the way Windows looks up other computers on the Internet that has resurfaced. The flaw could allow attackers to steer users to an untrustworthy Web Proxy Auto-Discovery (WPAD) server, where they would receive directions to, say, malicious Web sites rather than the legitimate destinations.

"That would be a very quick fix, and unlikely Microsoft behavior, but if the fix is as simple as some have said, it's possible," said Storms.

Microsoft patched the problem in 1999 for all users whose computers operated on domains included in the.com top-level domain. According to researchers at a recent security conference in New Zealand, however, the vulnerability remained for anyone who "lives" on a non-.com domain, including country-specific domains like .eu (European Union) and .nz (New Zealand) or general-purpose top-level domains such as .org and .net.

"I was hoping for a light month," mused Storms, "but it looks like I'd better stock up on coffee."

Microsoft will issue the seven updates next Tuesday around 1 p.m. EST, along with six high-priority, non-security updates for other software in its stable.

Unless it yanks one or more from the list at the last minute, Microsoft will end the year having released 69 security bulletins in 2007, nine fewer than 2006's total but 14 more than in 2005.

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Gregg Keizer

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