Exploit reveals the darker side of automatic updates

A new exploit called Evilgrade can take advantage of automatic updaters to install malicious code on unsuspecting systems

A recent study of Web browser installations showed that far too few are up to date with the latest security patches. And browsers aren't alone; as my dear old mum can attest, it can be hard to keep up with OS and application patches when all you want to do is use your computer for work. It should come as no surprise that many PCs are vulnerable to security exploits that could otherwise be prevented.

Firefox got top marks in the browser study because of its automatic update feature, which notifies users of the latest patches as soon as they're available. A growing number of vendors are using a similar approach, automatically checking for updates whenever you use their software. But now it turns out that automatic updates aren't always all they're cracked up to be. A new exploit called Evilgrade can take advantage of automatic updaters to install malicious code on unsuspecting systems, and your computers could be more vulnerable than you think.

Evilgrade is designed as a modular framework that accepts plug-ins capable of mounting attacks on a variety of software packages that employ their own auto-update procedures. Currently-supported targets include the Java browser plug-in, WinZip, Winamp, OpenOffice.org, the LinkedIn Toolbar, iTunes, and Mac OS X, among others. Still more plug-ins are liable to be developed in coming months.

The exploit works by pretending to be a genuine upgrade site and sending malicious code when your software was expecting a patch. The code might be anything, from a Trojan horse to a keylogger that intercepts passwords and user accounts.

Making use of the exploit isn't quite as easy as just pressing a button. It requires a pre-existing "man in the middle" condition, in which an attacker sets up a fake Web host that can intercept traffic traveling between a client and a genuine server. But while ordinarily that might be pretty tricky to achieve, the recently-disclosed DNS security flaw leaves many sites wide open.

So what to do about a security flaw that exploits the very system that's meant to patch security flaws? First, you should definitely make sure you have the DNS flaw taken care of at your site. That will block Evilgrade's attack route.

Next, read the documentation for Evilgrade and be aware of what software may be in use on your network that could be vulnerable to the exploit. If the software is important enough to your organization, get in touch with its vendor or developers and voice your concerns about the security of its auto-update function.

Finally, if security is a high priority at your organization, you may want to consider disabling automatic updates for selected software by blocking their auto-update sites in your firewall rules. Most software that supports automatic updates also allows you to download and install patches manually (though the individual patch files may be more difficult to locate).

For now, the risk imposed by Evilgrade is probably minimal, but don't be lulled into complacency. Automatic software updates may be convenient, but they also take one of the most important PC security functions out of the hands of the user. That can easily lead to a false sense of security; and when you let your guard down, that's how they get ya.

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.

Neil McAllister

PC World
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?