Two serious security flaws that could allow an attacker to take over a user's system exist in all current versions of Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) Web browser, including the one shipping with Windows Server 2003.
Affected are IE versions 5.01, 5.5, 6.0 and 6.0 for Windows Server 2003, Microsoft said in Security Bulletin MS03-020. The bulletin includes a software patch for all browser versions the software vendor urges users to install immediately.
With the announcement, Microsoft released its first security patch for Windows Server 2003, two months after the launch of the server product touted by Microsoft as one of its most secure products ever.
Microsoft was quick to stress that it had not failed to deliver on its security promise, but that in fact the flaws demonstrate that its "secure by design, secure by default and secure by deployment" approach is paying off.
"Windows Server 2003 in its default configuration is not vulnerable to this attack," senior director of Trustworthy Computing at Microsoft, Jeff Jones, said. "Because of that, the severity rating on the predecessor platforms is critical, but the severity rating on Windows Server 2003 is moderate,"
IE on Windows Server 2003 wass locked down as users are not expected to use a server computer for general Web browsing. The software has a "reduced attack surface area", Jones said.
However, because the underlying vulnerability still existed, Microsoft did want people to apply the patch, he said.
Although Jones sees this as "a proof point for Trustworthy Computing," Forrester Research analyst, Laura Koetzle, warned that it was too early to draw any conclusion on the level of security in Windows Server 2003.
"It is good that in the default configuration Windows Server 2003 is not vulnerable to this," Koetzle said. "However, I don't think we should jump the gun saying that Windows Server 2003 is clearly more secure than previous versions of Windows. All signs point to yes, but it is a bit premature to make that decision."
The first vulnerability exists because IE can automatically start downloading and running software if it is flooded by requests for software downloads, allowing an attacker to run arbitrary code on a user's computer.
The second vulnerability exists because of a buffer overrun flaw in the way IE reads "object tags" in Web pages. Object tags are used to embed objects such as Office documents or media files in a Web page. Buffer overrun flaws typically allow an attacker to gain control of a victim's computer.
Microsoft has a four-tiered system for rating security issues. Vulnerabilities that could be exploited to allow malicious Internet worms to spread without user action are rated critical. Issues that are rated important could still expose user data or threaten system resources. Vulnerabilities rated moderate are hard to exploit because of factors such as default configuration or auditing, or difficulty of exploitation.