McAfee apologizes for crippling PCs with bad update

Blames changes in testing for letting buggy update get loose; users want to hear CEO say 'sorry'

McAfee Inc. apologized late Thursday for crippling thousands of customers' computers with a flawed update the day before.

"I want to apologize on behalf of McAfee and say that we're extremely sorry for any impact the faulty signature update file may have caused you and your organizations," said Barry McPherson, the security vendor's executive vice president of support and customer service, in a post to the company's blog near midnight yesterday.

It was the first apology by a McAfee executive for the fiasco, which started early Wednesday when an antivirus signature update wrongly quarantined a critical Windows system file after identifying it as a low-threat virus.

Reports, confirmed and anecdotal, put the number of affected PCs in the thousands, the majority of them business machines. Only systems running Windows XP Service Pack 3 (SP3) were clobbered by the bad update, but it's the newest version and Gartner Inc. analyst John Pescatore estimates that it has a 50% share of the enterprise market.

Computers crippled by the update crashed and rebooted repeatedly and lost their network connections -- a symptom that forced support technicians to work on downed PCs individually, thus dragging out the time required to resuscitate machines.

McPherson provided a bare-bones explanation of how the flawed update managed to get through McAfee's testing. "The problem arose during the testing process for this DAT file," he said. "We recently made a change to our QA [quality assurance] environment that resulted in a faulty DAT making its way out of our test environment and onto customer systems."

McAfee is adding what McPherson called "additional QA protocols" to any updates that may impact critical Windows system files -- like the "svchost.exe" file that was erroneously quarantined Wednesday -- and will utilize its Artemis technology to provide customers a whitelist of hands-off system files.

Artemis is a McAfee technology that the vendor's desktop software uses to identify suspicious files by matching their digital "fingerprints" with a database stored on the company's servers.

Judging from the few comments added to McPherson's blog by 1:30 a.m. Eastern time today, McPherson's apology didn't sit well with users. "Let me say I am glad we have switched nearly 75% of our clients away from your product prior to this happening," said someone identified only as Charles H. "I can't imagine the chaos if we hadn't. It was chaos enough."

Users were much blunter the day before when they commented on a post McPherson wrote late Wednesday. That entry, titled "A Long Day at McAfee," raised the hackles of many who added their two cents.

"I'm not really interested in how hard your day was. Lots of folks had a rough day yesterday," said someone using the moniker "JustanIT Guy" in a comment Thursday. "What we should be hearing is how an update that smashed any PC running XP Service Pack 3 made it out the door."

Several comments asked why McAfee CEO David DeWalt had not issued an apology. DeWalt, who also occasionally posts to the McAfee blog, last did so on April 15, when he wrote about hosting the company's Public Sector Summit on security and current cyber threats.

"It is extremely telling that the CEO, David DeWalt, has not issued a statement about this matter on the McAfee web site," said a user identified only as Mark who commented on McPherson's blog.

Early Thursday, McAfee made available a semi-automated tool, dubbed "SuperDAT Remediation Tool," that's designed to restore a crippled computer. SuperDAT can be downloaded using a link on this support document.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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