Attention shoppers: Patch IE now before you shop online

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Today is the eleventh Patch Tuesday of 2012, but the first since the official launch of Windows 8 and Windows RT. There are six new security bulletins—a couple of which are particularly urgent, especially for anyone planning to do any online shopping this holiday season.

There are four security bulletins rated as Critical, one Important, and one Moderate. The Critical security bulletins address issues with Internet Explorer, Windows kernel-mode drivers, the .NET framework, and flaws in Windows shell code that can allow remote exploits.

The most crucial of the six security bulletins is the cumulative update for Internet Explorer—MS12-071. Andrew Storms, director of security operations for nCircle, declares, “Topping our ‘patch immediately’ list this month is the drive-by exploit affecting Internet Explorer 9. It’s fairly obvious that Microsoft patched this bug in IE10 before its release; otherwise, we would have a bulletin affecting both IE9 and IE10.

Black Friday—the official kick off of the holiday shopping season—and its online twin Cyber Monday are just around the corner. Millions of holiday shoppers will turn to the Internet to research gifts and make holiday purchases. The holidays are always a time for heightened online security, so a flaw in Internet Explorer that can result in drive-by downloads is even more serious than usual.

Tyler Reguly, technical manager of security research and development for nCircle, concurs. “To reiterate what will be said hundreds of times today: patch IE first. It's the most critical bulletin.”

With the proverbial ink still drying on the press related to the Windows 8 launch, November’s Patch Tuesday includes three security bulletins that apply to the new flagship operating system. MS12-072, MS12-074, and MS12-075 all affect both the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows 8, as well as Windows Server 2012. MS12-074 and MS12-075 also impact Windows RT—the version of Windows developed for ARM-based hardware like the Microsoft Surface RT tablet.

Three of the Patch Tuesday bulletins affect the brand new Windows 8 OS.

The fact that the brand new OS is already being patched might seem shocking to some, but it shouldn’t. Storms explains, “Much of the core operating system is reused from version to version, even in new releases, and all software has bugs. These factors, combined with security researchers that love to find and report bugs in the latest software version, are reasons for the number of bulletins for Windows 8. This should surprise no one.”

Reguly sums up any dismay over flaws in Windows 8 rather succinctly: “If you're looking for an operating system without vulnerabilities, you might as well check the end of the rainbow for a pot of gold or try to catch a unicorn.”

As always, Microsoft recommends enabling Automatic Updates in Windows. Dave Forstrom, director of Microsoft Trustworthy Computing, stressed, “We are committed to improving the security of all our products. When security updates are released, customers who have Automatic Updates enabled will be protected automatically and do not need take an action.”

But, the end of is 2012 fast approaching; so many organizations go into “lock-down” mode. Businesses, particularly those in retail and finance, are reluctant to apply any updates or patches at all for fear of possible conflicts or adverse consequences. They’d rather gamble with the risk of a potential exploit and wait until the New Year to apply the updates.

Businesses that choose not to apply the patches and updates should take other proactive steps to avoid exploits. Microsoft provides comprehensive mitigation advice—steps to follow and alternate security measures to put in place—that are crucial for organizations that want to minimize risk without compromising the stability of their PCs.

As a side note, Qualys CTO Wolfgang Kandek points out in a blog post that Microsoft isn’t the only vendor releasing patches. He mentions recent updates for Adobe Flash and Apple Quicktime—two popular, virtually ubiquitous tools. Kandek says, “Both have been targeted by attackers before, and you should always be on the latest versions of both products to avoid being exposed to exploits against known vulnerabilities that are included in toolkits, such as BlackHole, Crimepack and Phoenix.”

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