Microsoft Corp. has shipped the second rush update this year for Internet Explorer (IE), patching 10 vulnerabilities, including one hackers have been exploiting for weeks.
That bug had been reported to Microsoft by a Beijing security company before news broke that it was being used by attackers. In fact, Microsoft wrapped up work on the fix for IE6 by Feb. 26, according to date stamps on the affected file.
The update, tagged MS10-018, was released two weeks early because Microsoft had tracked a growing number of attacks against IE6 and IE7. The bug has been used by malicious sites to launch drive-by attacks for much of the month.
The patch addressing the public vulnerabilities in IE 6 could help companies avoid phishing attacks and other attempts to draw people to authorize legitimate Web sites containing the malicious code. If impacted, systems could succumb to remote code execution, “if a user viewed a specially crafted Web page using” IE, Microsoft says.
The last emergency IE update was issued January 21 to fix eight flaws, including one that had been exploited to attack Google , Adobe and scores of other companies. Google blamed China for the attacks, a move that led to its decision to relocate its Chinese-language search engine to Hong Kong.
All 10 vulnerabilities patched in today’s update — which was originally slated for release April 13, the next regularly-scheduled Patch Tuesday — were rated “critical,” the highest level threat in Microsoft’s four-step scoring system. But there were clear differences in the risk profiles of different versions of IE.
IE6, the 2001 browser that many want to see dead and buried , was affected by eight of the 10 bugs, with seven of those eight marked critical. IE7, which debuted in 2006 prior to the release of Windows Vista, contained seven out of the possible 10, with five vulnerabilities tagged critical. IE8, on the other hand, was touched by just three of the 10, with only two critical.
“The message today should be to get onto IE8,” said Andrew Storms, director of security operations at nCircle Network Security. “Not just ditch IE6, but dump IE6 and IE7.”
For the most part, Storms saw the 10 vulnerabilities as “pretty typical IE bugs. Except for [CVE-2010-0806], none of them are particularly troublesome, or no more than we’ve come to expect.” CVE-2010-0806 is the Common Vulnerabilities & Exposure ID for the vulnerability that prompted the rush, or “out-of-band,” update.
And that vulnerability received most of the attention today from Storms and other researchers, including HD Moore, the creator of the Metasploit framework and chief security officer at security company Rapid7, which manages the open-source Metasploit project.
According to Moore, Microsoft’s out-of-band hand was forced when a Taiwanese researcher nicknamed “Nanika” revamped public exploit code so that it worked reliably against not only IE6, but also the newer IE7. “Before, Microsoft said, ‘Not that big a deal,’ but then the facts changed and they say, ‘Sorry, this does affect IE7 reliably.’ They changed their mind.”
When Microsoft first warned customers of the memory corruption flaw in the “iepeers.dll” file, it said that attacks were aimed only at IE6 users, and that Protected Mode in IE7 would help protect users of that version. Protected Mode is a pseudo-sandbox that tries to keep attack code from escaping the browser to modify, add or delete data elsewhere on the PC.
Microsoft said nothing of that protection today, and rated the vulnerability as critical for both IE6 and IE7.
The bug had been reported to Microsoft by ADLab of VenusTech, a Chinese security firm based in Beijing, probably in January or early February, said nCircle’s Storms. According to the date stamps on the iepeers.dll files for the various browsers, Microsoft had completed the fix — and passed it on to internal testing — no later than Feb. 26 for IE6 and March 12 for IE7.
“It’s good to see that Microsoft can rapidly turn this patch around and help protect its customers against malicious threats, but the bad side is that the only reason the company would typically go out-of-band on a patch is because the exploit is that horrible and the exploit code is out there,” says Jason Miller, data and security team manager at Shavlik Technologies.
As Microsoft said, the iepeers.dll vulnerability does not affect IE8.
“I’m not surprised that Microsoft released the update,” said Moore. “Working exploit code has consistently accelerated Microsoft’s update process.” As late as yesterday, other researchers had expressed surprise that Microsoft was able to craft a fix so quickly. “They focus on IE bugs more than anything else, because they are so high profile,” said Moore.
“And Microsoft can actually fix things pretty quickly, within a week or two or three,” he continued. “They generally address [bugs] quickly, but then hold off until its widely exploited. Otherwise, they wait until the next release.”
MS10-018 can be downloaded and installed via the Microsoft Update and Windows Update services, as well as through Windows Server Update Services.
With files from Denise Dubie