Microsoft OneCare Silently Changes Automatic Updates

Microsoft Corp.'s consumer security software changes the Automatic Updates (AU) settings in Windows XP and Vista without telling users or getting their approval, a researcher said Thursday -- behavior that may explain recent reports of patches being installed and systems rebooting without permission.

When Microsoft responded to new charges of silent changes last week, however, it denied that AU settings were ever altered without user approval, and it didn't mention OneCare as a possible culprit.

Scott Dunn, an editor at the "Windows Secrets" newsletter, reported Thursday morning that OneCare silently changes AU settings as it installs. No matter what AU setting the user selected previously, OneCare's installer quietly changes it to the fully automatic option.

"Some security products have turned on AU in the past," said Dunn, who also tested several other current consumer suites, including Symantec Corp.'s Norton 360 and Norton Internet Security, McAfee Inc.'s Internet Security Suite, and Check Point Software Technologies Ltd.'s ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite. "But OneCare was the only guilty party."

OneCare's willful way with AU may be an explanation for the reports two weeks ago of machines downloading and installing the Oct. 9 set of security fixes even though their owners had explicitly instructed Windows to ignore all downloads or notify them before they were installed.

Several days later, after it wrapped up an investigation, Microsoft said AU settings were never changed without user consent, and it blamed absent-minded users for making modifications and then forgetting that they had.

"I find this surprising and very disturbing," said Dunn. "If they're going to change [AU] settings, they should let you know."

Four options, down to one

In both Windows XP and Vista, users can select from four options in AU: download and install all updates automatically; download files but do not install them without user consent; check for but neither download nor install without permission; and disable Automatic Updates entirely.

OneCare, sold for $49.95 and offered as a free 90-day trial, sets AU to the first, and all-automatic, setting, said Dunn, on both operating systems. "It does that even if Automatic Updates is completely disabled," he added. If users later uninstall OneCare -- for instance, after a trial has expired -- the software does not return the machine to the earlier settings; they must be reset by the user.

"Worse, OneCare silently turns on [Windows] services that have been disabled by the user," Dunn said, referring to the two services that some users, frustrated at earlier incidents in which Windows retrieved and installed patches without permission, have manually turned off: Automatic Updates and Background Intelligent Transfer Service (BITS). The services can be switched off manually using the Windows services.msc utility. Normally, once disabled, they remain that way until the user manually turns them back on.

ComputerWorld confirmed Dunn's account of OneCare's AU changes by installing the security suite on both Windows XP and Windows Vista.

At no time during installation, said Dunn, does OneCare tell the user that the software will modify Windows' settings or provide an opt-in dialog. Nor do the various online documents -- including Microsoft's privacy statement and an addendum for OneCare -- that are offered up early during the process contain any information about the changes. "It turns out there's a brief mention of it buried deep in one of the OneCare help files," said Dunn. "But that's not the same as telling users upfront."

The help file (select "What does Windows Live Update do to help manage and maintain my computer's software updates?" to view the pertinent section) acknowledges that OneCare makes changes without bothering to ask. "When you first install Windows Live OneCare, setup automatically enlists your computer in Microsoft Update and changes your computer's settings to download and install updates automatically using Automatic Updates," it reads.

Who's 'forgetful' now?

Although Microsoft was not immediately available for comment this morning, it made it clear last week that reports of unauthorized updates, and even PC reboots, could not be blamed on its software.

"I want to stress that the Windows Update client does not change AU settings without users' consent," said Nate Clinton, a program manager with the Microsoft Update team in a company blog entry a week ago. He went on to list five possible explanations; all require the user to take action or accept one option from several offered.

Earlier, a Microsoft spokeswoman had been more blunt. "It may be more a case of someone clicking to change their AU settings but not realizing/remembering doing so," she said in an e-mail last Tuesday. She also called out OneCare's installation as one such possible moment and claimed that the security suite offered users the option of changing AU settings. It does not.

"This is just one more example of Microsoft having the attitude that we know better than you do, that you should just stop asking questions and let us do what we want," said Dunn.

This story, "Microsoft OneCare Silently Changes Automatic Updates" was originally published by Computerworld.

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