However, in December 2005, a London-based security firm called Computer Terrorism Ltd. published proof-of-concept code showing how hackers can exploit this very problem and take over a user's Windows system.
Windows 98, 2000, XP Vulnerable
Of course, Microsoft is now miffed at Computer Terrorism Ltd. for reminding everybody that the bug in IE was never fixed, but security experts are wondering what's taken Microsoft so long to get around to plugging the security hole to begin with.
Another IE Vulnerability
The French Security Incident Response Team (FrSIRT) Web site posted these samples of a maliciously encoded image file that could be used by attackers to grind a Windows PC to a halt! That's right! A Windows machine can be crashed by simply viewing an image file! These published examples exploit the critical vulnerability in the way Windows processes files saved in the Windows Metafile (.wmf and .emf extensions) graphics format.
When IE views specially crafted files that contain the malicious code, the PC's CPU utilization will climb to 100%, causing the PC to crash. The Windows Metafile problems affect virtually all supported versions of Windows, according to Microsoft's Web site. This kind of vulnerability could be key to creating a massive denial-of-service (DoS) attack against anyone with connectivity to the Internet.
Fixing the Bugs
But wait! Microsoft says it fixed this Metafile bug in its MS05-053 Security Update, which was released just last November 8! "Everybody should have these now," Microsoft says. "All they have to do is enable the Windows Update feature or go to the Microsoft Update Web site."
However, this creates a second conundrum for users of Windows 98, XP, and 2000....
Damned if You Do! Damned if You Don't!
If a user is running an alternative browser, such as Firefox or Opera—in response to the bug Microsoft failed to fix last May—and he attempts to obtain the Microsoft updates from http://update.microsoft.com Web site, he will receive the following message: "Thank you for your interest in obtaining updates from our site. To use this site, you must be running Microsoft Internet Explorer 5 or later."
(As of this writing, Microsoft says that it will release the bug fix as part of its Windows Update function on January 10.)
Still More Bugs!
Also in December, hackers released even more code that took advantage of yet another Windows security hole that was purportedly patched in October. That software exploited a flaw in the Microsoft Distributed Transaction Coordinator (MSDTC), a component of the operating system that is commonly used by database software to help manage transactions.
The MSDTC attack software can be used to knock Windows systems out of operation. The code that took advantage of this flaw has been in circulation since mid-October, but it had not been posted on a public Web site before December. Of course, to obtain a patch for this vulnerability, you have to go to the http://update.microsoft.com site, too. And what do you need to obtain it? Internet Explorer, of course!
What's a Poor User to Do?
Instead, Microsoft forced users to choose browsers from competitors, which then limited Microsoft's ability to provide further patches for all of its Windows products through the IE delivery mechanism.
Remedies for the Windows/IE Support Conundrum
Microsoft could do a lot of tactical things to prevent this kind of support bottleneck in the future. For instance, it could develop a patch-delivery system that doesn't rely upon Internet Explorer, an application that has been proven over and over to be one of the main sources of security vulnerabilities itself. It has now done this for major updates to the operating system, but it should also make this functionality available for non-IE browsers.
Or, separately, it could donate the source of IE to the open source community and let the community determine how best to deploy future security fixes to the product. This would enable Microsoft to focus on more critical security issues in its operating systems' products. And, by doing so, IE could then be allowed to become a true international standard. Since Microsoft doesn't directly benefit from sales of IE, one might think this was the most logical thing to do.
However, Microsoft continues to use IE as a wedge for implementing its other technologies, such as Active-X and .NET, technologies that are critical to its overall plan for continued dominance in the PC operating system environment.
At the very least, Microsoft should establish a "zero tolerance" security policy for IE, in which any reported vulnerability receives the highest priority, regardless of the support profiles of the underlying operating systems that it is running upon. This would mean that instead of pooh-poohing marginal vulnerabilities (as the latest holes were once deemed), an all-out effort would be made to patch them as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, we've all grown accustomed to security breaches with Microsoft products, so our standards for this flawed product have eroded over the years. Likewise, when Microsoft assures us now that it takes these issues seriously, we continue to roll our eyes and silently bite our lips, hoping that Microsoft's sloppiness doesn't prove to be the undoing of our organizations' security.
Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press Online, LP.