Exploit Reveals the Darker Side of Automatic Updates

July 29, 2008 – 9:07 PM

A recent study of Web browser installations showed that far too few are up to date with the latest security patches. And browsers aren’t alone; as my dear old mum can attest, it can be hard to keep up with OS and application patches when all you want to do is use your computer for work. It should come as no surprise that many PCs are vulnerable to security exploits that could otherwise be prevented.

Firefox got top marks in the browser study because of its automatic update feature, which notifies users of the latest patches as soon as they’re available. A growing number of vendors are using a similar approach, automatically checking for updates whenever you use their software. But now it turns out that automatic updates aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be. A new exploit called Evilgrade can take advantage of automatic updaters to install malicious code on unsuspecting systems, and your computers could be more vulnerable than you think.

Evilgrade is designed as a modular framework that accepts plug-ins capable of mounting attacks on a variety of software packages that employ their own auto-update procedures. Currently-supported targets include the Java browser plug-in, WinZip, Winamp, OpenOffice.org, the LinkedIn Toolbar, iTunes, and Mac OS X, among others. Still more plug-ins are liable to be developed in coming months.

The exploit works by pretending to be a genuine upgrade site and sending malicious code when your software was expecting a patch. The code might be anything, from a Trojan horse to a keylogger that intercepts passwords and user accounts.


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