Moments before a top Microsoft executive told Congress about efforts to improve security, the company warned on Wednesday of new flaws that leave its flagship Windows software vulnerable to Internet attacks similar to the Blaster virus that infected hundreds of thousands of computers last month.
Microsoft urged customers to immediately apply a free repairing patch from its Web site, www.microsoft.com
The company cautioned that hackers could seize control over a victimÂ´s computer by attacking these flaws, which affect Windows technology that allows computers to communicate with others across a network.
“We definitely want people to apply this one,” said Jeff Jones, MicrosoftÂ´s senior director for trustworthy computing. Outside researchers and MicrosoftÂ´s own internal reviews discovered the new flaws after the Blaster infection, he said.
Outside experts said some flaws were nearly identical to problems exploited by the Blaster worm, which spread last month with devastating damage. Computer users who applied an earlier patch in July to protect themselves still must install the new patch from Microsoft.
“TheyÂ´re as close as you can be without being the same,” said Marc Maiffret, an executive at eEye Digital Security Inc. of Aliso Viejo, Calif., one of three research groups credited with discovering some of the new problems. “ItÂ´s definitely a big oversight on MicrosoftÂ´s part that they missed these.”
Maiffret speculated that because of the similarities, hackers could launch attacks against unprotected systems as early as dayÂ´s end. “ItÂ´s going to be trivial,” he said. “This is an instant replay of a few weeks ago.”
A vice president at Network Associates Inc., Robin Matlock, agreed that corporations, government agencies and home users will race the clock before the next attack. “Without a doubt, this is a nasty vulnerability. It could easily be exploited,” she said. “Administrators are under more pressure here to move quickly.”
The disclosure by Microsoft came just moments before its senior security strategist, Phil Reitinger, told lawmakers on the House Government Reform technology subcommittee about the companyÂ´s efforts to help consumers defend themselves against viruses and other Internet attacks.
“Microsoft is committed to continuing to strengthen our software to make it less vulnerable to attack,” said Reitinger, a former deputy chief in the Justice DepartmentÂ´s cybercrime division. Still, he acknowledged, “There is no such thing as completely secure software.”
Reitinger told lawmakers about the new flaws and said that Microsoft is considering changing Windows to install software repairs automatically; currently, computer users are notified when updates are available and reminded to manually click to install them.
Microsoft said Windows users who follow the companyÂ´s new security guidelines it published on its Web site at www.microsoft.com/protect should be safe until they install the latest patch. The company plans a Webcast on Friday to discuss the latest threat.
The July announcement from Microsoft about the earlier software flaw in the same Windows technology was deemed so serious it led to separate warnings from the FBI and Homeland Security Department. About three weeks later, unidentified hackers unleashed the earliest version of the Blaster infection.
“The damage done was real,” said Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., adding that the attacks disrupted computers at the Federal Reserve in Atlanta, MarylandÂ´s motor vehicle agency and the Minnesota transportation department.
Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., said the attacks in August nearly crippled the House of RepresentativesÂ´ e-mail system and “likely inhibited our nationÂ´s ability to adequately respond to the vast power outage” this summer.
Also during WednesdayÂ´s hearing, a deputy assistant U.S. attorney general bristled over suggestions by Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., that the governmentÂ´s lackluster record making arrests after major Internet attacks indicates it does not consider them serious threats.
Such investigations are enormously complicated and frequently point overseas at sophisticated hackers skilled at covering their digital footprints, John Malcolm said.