Microsoft to patch dangerous Outlook hack-by-preview bug next week

Sets Patch Tuesday plans with slate of 14 updates, including critical fixes to IE, Windows, Office and SharePoint

Microsoft today said it will ship 14 security updates next week to patch critical vulnerabilities in Internet Explorer (IE), Windows, Office and SharePoint, its enterprise collaboration platform.

The IE update, slated to affect every supported version, from the soon-to-be-retired IE6 to the newest IE10, was at the top of most security experts' lists, including the one crafted by Andrew Storms, director of DevOps at CloudPassage.

Microsoft has patched IE every month so far this year, Storms said, the fruit of a change in July 2012, when Microsoft ditched a years-long practice of updating the browser on alternate months. The company patched IE in June, July, August and September 2012 to demonstrate its new capabilities before pausing, then returned to IE last November and December.

"I expect we'll see IE updates every month from now on," said Storms, basing his take on the 11-months-straight stretch. That would put Microsoft's patch tempo between that of its chief browser rivals, Google and Mozilla, which update their Chrome and Firefox applications several times monthly or once every six weeks, respectively.

Of the 14 updates slated to ship next Tuesday, Microsoft pegged four as critical, the company's most severe rating. The other 10 will be labeled "important," the next step down in Microsoft's four-step threat system.

Storms also put the spotlight on what Microsoft marked as "Bulletin 2," which will quash one or more bugs in Outlook 2007 and Outlook 2010, the email clients included with Office 2007 and Office 2010, the most widely-used editions of the company's productivity suite.

While Microsoft kept to its practice of not disclosing details of the underlying vulnerabilities in its Thursday notification, another researcher predicted that the Outlook flaw would turn out to be extremely dangerous.

"Past patterns in critical Office vulnerabilities have always been through the preview pane," said Wolfgang Kandek, CTO of Qualys, in an email. "It is pretty much the only way to get into Outlook without user interaction, which is Microsoft's criteria for a critical rating."

Kandek argued that the bug or bugs to be patched by Bulletin 2 will turn out to be exploitable if hackers can simply get users to preview an e-mail in Outlook.

Such vulnerabilities are considered nearly as treacherous as a drive-by browser exploit, said Storms, because by default Outlook automatically displays the contents of each message. He suggested users disable the preview pane in Outlook 2007 and 2010 until more is known of Bulletin 2's vulnerabilities.

"The Outlook update is almost as important as the one for IE, because next to the browser, your email reader is just as popular and important," said Storms of corporate users.

One of the two remaining critical bulletins will affect only Windows XP and Windows Server 2003, while the second will address one or more flaws in SharePoint Server 2007, 2010 and 2013, and in Office Web Apps 2010.

Both were notable to Storms.

"Microsoft is definitely clearing out the backlog, the crud, in Windows XP," Storms said, referring to the impending April 2014 end of support for the aged OS. "I think it shows the continued commitment to XP, up until the last possible day."

While some security professionals and industry analysts have argued that Microsoft may retreat from its line in the sand over XP patches, Storms has not been among them.

Bulletin 1, which impacts SharePoint, Office's collaboration platform, will also be important to patch pronto, some said today. "I believe Bulletin 1 is the most dangerous because it allows remote code execution on SharePoint servers," said Tommy Chin, a technical support engineer at CORE Security, in an email. "The data on a server is typically worth more than data on a workstation machine and it is fairly easy to discover SharePoint servers using Google."

Several of the 10 updates marked important will patch vulnerabilities that can be exploited remotely, including three involving Word, Excel and Access, the word processor, spreadsheet and database applications within the Office bundle.

"Almost every part of the Office suite will be patched," said Storms, only slightly exaggerating. "We haven't seen a heavy Office release like this in quite some time."

Microsoft will release next week's security updates on Sept. 10 around 1 p.m. ET.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at  @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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