With attackers finding more ways to exploit a critical flaw in its Windows operating system, Microsoft Corp. has published an emergency software patch.
The update, released as expected Tuesday morning, actually fixes seven separate Windows vulnerabilities, but security experts are most concerned about a bug in the way Windows processes .ani Animated Cursor files. Online criminals have been exploiting this bug since late last week.
This is the only one of the seven vulnerabilities rated "critical" by Microsoft.
Microsoft was forced to release the early update a week ahead of schedule because attacks had become too widespread, said Ken Dunham, director of malicious code intelligence with iDefense Inc. "We have over 400 different URLs identified and related to attacks, and multiple e-mails have been sent out that direct people back there," he said. "We have proof that organized groups are now launching attacks."
The .ani attack vector will probably be one of the "most prevalent and persistent types of attacks we will see in the next months and years," he said.
Exploit code for the flaw has now been added to the widely used Metasploit hacking tool, and there are automated malicious Web site generation tools available, he added.
This is the third such "out-of-band" patch release Microsoft has made since January 2006, Microsoft's public relations agency said in a statement. "Each time, the decision to go out-of-band has been a carefully considered decision to protect customers from an emerging security issue," the statement said. Microsoft executives could not be reached immediately for comment.
Microsoft was first notified of the flaw in December 2006 by security vendor Determina Inc.
On Tuesday, a Determina executive said that Microsoft would have been better off issuing a patch for the .ani flaw sooner, rather than waiting for the April update and forcing customers to rush an emergency fix. "The customers are now going to incur the same cost as they would before, except that they are going to have to do this in panic," said Nand Mulchandani, Determina's vice president of marketing. "I have no idea why they didn't do this earlier."
Windows users are strongly encouraged to install the patch, because the .ani flaw can be used to exploit computers running virtually any version of Windows, including Vista, even if they are running non-Microsoft browsers like Firefox and Opera, Mulchandani said.