Samsung cripples Windows Update on its PCs, putting customers at risk

Microsoft says it's 'in contact with Samsung to address this issue'

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Samsung has been disabling Microsoft's Windows Update on its desktops and notebooks, leaving customers vulnerable to malware that targets already-patched vulnerabilities, a researcher reported yesterday.

Microsoft confirmed the report, and said it is talking with Samsung about the Korean company crippling the default update service for all Windows PCs.

The discovery by Patrick Barker, a crash-debugging and reverse-engineering expert -- and a Microsoft MVP (Most Valuable Professional) -- was triggered by a report on the Sysnative discussion forum that Windows Update was being randomly disabled on a user's PC.

After Barker and others investigated, they concluded that Samsung's own SW Update was disabling Microsoft's Windows Update, the patch and update service for all consumers and many businesses. Like many OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), Samsung provides a homegrown tool to keep its drivers and third-party pre-installed software up to date.

Unlike other OEMs, however, Samsung was incapacitating Windows Update.

Barker posted his findings on his personal blog Tuesday.

In the SW Update package, Barker found a file labeled Disable_Windowsupdate.exe, that did what its name implied: It blocked the execution of Windowsupdate.exe, the application that runs Windows Update on Windows-powered systems. Disable_Windowsupdate.exe was signed with a Samsung-generated digital certificate, said Barker, and could be installed and presumably run on all versions of Windows from XP on, including Windows 8.1, Microsoft's newest operating system until Windows 10 arrives next month.

Barker also published an extract of an online chat he conducted with a Samsung technical support representative, who acknowledged that SW Update turned off Windows Update, but defended the practice.

"When you enable Windows updates, it will install the Default Drivers for all the hardware no laptop which may or may not work," the support technician wrote. "For example if there is USB 3.0 on laptop, the ports may not work with the installation of updates. So to prevent this, SW Update tool will prevent the Windows updates."

It was unclear from Barker's post whether SW Update then assumed responsibility for passing along some of the patches and fixes normally pushed to PCs by Microsoft, or if the shuttering of Windows Update meant that nothing reached an afflicted Samsung device from Microsoft's servers.

Barker did not immediately reply to an email asking that question.

Samsung also did not reply to a request for comment.

But Microsoft said it is aware of the problem. "Windows Update remains a critical component of our security commitment to our customers," a Microsoft spokesman said in a statement. "We do not recommend disabling or modifying Windows Update in any way as this could expose a customer to increased security risks. We are in contact with Samsung to address this issue."

By disabling Windows Update, Samsung was severing its customers' link to the only sanctioned distribution channel for Microsoft software updates, including, as the spokesman noted, vulnerability patches.

"This is a rather sad state of affairs," echoed Andrew Storms, vice president of security services at New Context, a San Francisco-based security consultancy. "Windows Update is there for a reason. It's the de facto channel for Microsoft to distribute updates to their users."

By crippling Windows Update, Samsung was shouldering obligations Microsoft has long assumed, Storms argued. That is, if Samsung was passing along Microsoft's patches. "If this is accurate, it means that Samsung is essentially taking responsibility for distributing patches," Storms said. "Or perhaps distributing their own versions of the patches."

And it that was true, then there was no guarantee Samsung was not interfering in an even more unacceptable fashion. "There is, of course, a possible nefarious angle here," said Storms. "Which was my hint to their own versions of the patches."

Storms was clearly flummoxed by Samsung's apparent disregard for its customers' security. "What's up with these people?" he wondered.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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