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Microsoft issues new security patches to protect IE

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July 30, 2009

Early Tuesday afternoon, Microsoft has issued two emergency updates to repair some critical security holes that leave users of Internet Explorer and an untold number of third-party applications vulnerable to remote attacks that can fully compromise their PCs.

Overall, most of the vulnerabilities are located in Microsoft's ATL (Active Template Library) which developers from Redmond and elsewhere use to write Component Object Model code, including ActiveX controls that are frequently targeted by attackers.

Specific applications that have drawn on the buggy library may be vulnerable to attacks that allow the remote execution of viruses and various malware, and also the interception of sensitive user information.

Referred to as MS09-035, the first security patch fixes no less than 3 vulnerabilities in the ATL contained in Microsoft's Visual Studio suite. Developers who have used Visual Studio to create controls may need to recompile their programs after patching their systems.

For now, Microsoft doesn't know how many third-party applications could be affected, but the software giant believes the vast majority are not, said Mike Reavey, director of the Microsoft Security Response Center.

The second security patch issued by Microsoft is referred to as MS09-034. It prevents any components or controls built using the buggy ATL from being exploited in Internet Explorer. It also fixes three unrelated vulnerabilities in the Microsoft browser that could also lead to more remote code execution attempts.

Reavey said "if you have a computer that's not been updated with the update we released today, then any vulnerable control on your system could expose you to risk, like any scenario where you have a vulnerable component on your machine. If you don't have the updates we released Tuesday then you're exposed to old vulnerabilities in ATL that are mitigated through IE today."

The ATL security holes are also noteworthy since they have the ability to pollute large bases of code that flow out of Visual Studio's ATL.

The security flaw is dubbed the "ATL COM initialization vulnerability" and given a designation of CVE-2009-2493.

One of the ATL bugs being squashed allowed attackers to bypass so-called kill-bit protections, which are used to seal off ActiveX controls that are later determined to be insecure or otherwise unreliable. The flaw is significant because it has the effect of resurrecting vulnerabilities that were patched long ago.

Microsoft fixed two other security flaws in the ATL. One is dubbed ATL Null String Vulnerability and the other ATL uninitialized object vulnerability.

This is only the 9th time Microsoft has issued security updates outside of its normal schedule. It comes as thousands of hackers and security professionals convene in Las Vegas for the Black Hat and Defcon conferences this week.

Adobe has already said that both its Flash and Shockwave media player applications use vulnerable versions of the ATL, but only versions of those programs that use IE are affected. The company plans to issue fixes. In the interim, users should be protected by installing the patch for MS09-034.

Reavey added "this is an issue in a library, and when they happen throughout the industry, they're challenging. The biggest theme here is collaboration."

While Microsoft's rapid action is commendable, computer users should remember that Tuesday's updates are only the beginning. If you're using an ActiveX control that loads in an application other than IE, there's still the very real possibility that it has been poisoned by Microsoft's ATL and isn't fixed by these updates, said Ryan Smith, one of the researchers who discovered the killbit-override bug.

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Source: Microsoft.

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