Security firm retracts 'black screen' claims, apologizes to Microsoft

Lesson from Prevx gaffe is that corporate blogging comes with risks, argues analyst

The U.K. security company that started a firestorm after claiming recent Windows security updates caused a widespread "black screen" lock-out of users' PCs has retracted its claims and publicly apologized to Microsoft.

"It is clear that our original blog post has been taken out of context and may have caused an inconvenience for Microsoft," Mel Morris, the chief executive of U.K. security firm Prevx, said in an entry on the company's blog Wednesday. "This was never our intention and we have already apologized to Microsoft."

Morris' blog post was the second in two days that included an apology to Microsoft. The first, written yesterday by Jacques Erasmus, Prevx's director of research, said that Microsoft's patches were not to blame; he instead pinned responsibility for the black screens on malware infections.

The brouhaha began last Friday when Prevx said the Windows security updates issued in November changed Access Control List (ACL) entries in the registry, preventing some installed software from running properly. The result, said Prevx, was a black screen, sometimes dubbed the "black screen of death" -- a reference to the "blue screen of death" that Windows puts up after a major system crash.

On Monday, Microsoft said it was investigating the reports, but by Tuesday it was denying that its updates caused black screens. Moreover, said Microsoft, its technical support teams were not fielding any appreciable number of customer calls on the issue.

Microsoft turned up the heat on Prevx yesterday in other ways, as well. Roger Halbheer, Microsoft's chief security advisor for the company's European, Middle Eastern and African operations, argued that the black screen news was causing customers to delay deploying Windows security updates. "You should now make your risk assessment and decide which source you want to trust," said Halbheer on a Microsoft blog Tuesday. "For me, the ultimate source for information you should build your assessment on is neither Twitter nor your brother's sister-in-law's father's brother, but our Web site."

Morris' contention that Prevx's original blog had been taken out of context doesn't jibe with the comments he made to IDGNews' reporter Jeremy Kirk, who first reported on the black screen claims.

On Monday, Morris told Kirk that Microsoft's latest patches appeared to make changes to those registry keys that caused the black screens. "It's one of those things that happens from time to time when you have a dynamic operating system," Morris said then.

The dust-up won't irrevocably damage Prevx's reputation as a security provider, said John Pescatore, Gartner's primary security analyst. "A single incident doesn't do damage, but a general pattern of this will," he said. "But if a company gets a reputation for doing this kind of thing again and again, people will ask, 'Are you doing ambulance chasing, or are you causing accidents by ambulance chasing?'"

However, the lesson to be learned from Prevx's misstep was something completely different, Pescatore continued. "Corporate blogging carries a lot of risk," he said. "A lot of smaller vendors think blogging is a cheaper way to reach their audience than traditional public relations, but we caution clients about doing that. Corporate PR goes through a lot of review, but blogs often don't.

"Companies have to treat blog posts like their do PR, or have some other process to monitor blogs," Pescatore said.

Just as there's a generally-understood policy related to responsibly disclosing vulnerabilities -- alerting the affected vendor prior to publicly releasing information about the bug -- there has to be something similar for blog posts by security companies, Pescatore argued.

Prevx didn't seem to follow that advice; Morris admitted to Kirk on Monday that Prevx had not contacted Microsoft prior to posting its initial blog last Friday. Only after reports spread on the Web about Prevx's claims -- including allegations that a pair of Microsoft updates were the likely culprits of the black screens -- did Prevx reach out to the company.

Pescatore's final advice was similar to that often offered to people thinking about firing off an inflammatory e-mail. "Did you count to 10 before you pushed the button?" Pescatore said.

Prevx declined to comment on the black screen issue, and referred Computerworld to Morris' Wednesday blog post, which a company spokesperson said would "help clarify further Prevx's position."

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