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McAfee update goes haywire, affects police and hospital sites

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April 26, 2010

Police departments and hospitals in the U.S., along with other critical websites were hit by a false positive from McAfee on April 21st that labelled a core Windows file as potentially malicious.

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A detection update from McAfee labeled DAT 5958 falsely labelled the svchost.exe as the Wecorl-A virus, sending a vital Windows operating system file into quarantine in the process.

Within just a few moments, infected PCs and many workstations became totally inoperable and went into a continuous reboot cycle.

Making matters worse, clean up operations were further complicated by the fact that the update that went haywire totally disabled network access as well.

McAfee responded to the problem by withdrawing the definition update and later releasing a clean one. The security firm then published some advice on how to manually fix these affected computers. The influx of interested parties trying to look up the advice through McAfee's forum even caused the website to become unavailable for a short time on the evening of April 21.

The timing of the update (mid-afternoon on Wednesday, European time) meant that U.S. enterprise systems configured to automatically apply new updates were among those most affected.

Reported victims include the Kansas City Police Department, the University of Kansas Hospital and about 32 percent of all hospitals located in Rhode Island.

Computers and critical workstations at Intel were also greatly affected, it was reported over the weekend.

And cybercriminals wasted no time at all in further exploiting the situation for their own purposes, poisoning search results so that links to scareware portals appeared prominently in indexes. As a result, users are advised to be especially careful if they choose to search for information on solving the problem. Getting advice directly from McAfee is a far better option, security specialists say.

First hand experiences from an Iowa community emergency response center, ironically running a disaster recovery exercise at the same time, can be found in a posting to the Internet Storm's website. An Internet infrastructure firm was also hard hit by the snafu.

Some analysts compared the effect of the update to the infamous Blaster worm. It's unclear, however, how any item of malware has so effectively floored so many systems in such a short space of time, and the results are troubling, to say the least.

McAfee is seeking to downplay the effects of the incident, saying that few consumers were affected while apologising to those hit:

McAfee is aware that a number of customers have incurred a false positive error due to this release. Corporations who kept a feature called “Scan Processes on Enable” in McAfee VirusScan Enterprise disabled, as it is by default, were not affected. Our initial investigation indicates that the error can result in moderate to significant issues on systems running Windows XP Service Pack 3.

The faulty update was quickly removed from all McAfee download servers, preventing any further impact on customers. We are not aware of significant impact on consumers as of now. False positives affect all anti-virus software vendors from time to time. Problems are particularly severe, as in this latest case, when a core Windows file was targetted.

As previously reported, the industry's approach towards minimising the number and severity of false positives has been to make greater use of white listing.

Why that technique wasn't applied in the McAfee case or failed to work properly is a key question for the company's quality control engineers to consider in the wake of last week's massive security hole.

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Source: McAfee.

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