Report: Many Windows automatic updates are thwarted by user inaction

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You can't have good security unless you keep your operating system and applications current, with all of the latest patches and updates. Microsoft makes it easy for Windows users with its automatic updates, and yet a new report finds that many PCs with automatic updates enabled are nevertheless not actually up to date.

The OPSWAT Market Share Analysis of Antivirus & Operating Systems report, released Tuesday, is based on data gathered from users of OPSWAT GEARS security monitoring tools. The information used represents approximately 4,500 users who were surveyed between May 1 and October 1 of 2014.

The primary focus of the study—as the title implies—is to analyze the relative market share of different antivirus solutions by region, or operating system platform. The data that stands out the most in the report, though, is this: Even though 89 percent of the Windows systems surveyed have automatic updates enabled (96 percent among Windows 8.1 devices in the survey), less than 30 percent of them are actually current with all updates and patches.

Why is that? OPSWAT suggests that the discrepancy is a function of user interaction. “This could indicate that when most users see a notification for an update, they are reluctant to shut down their devices to go through the complete update process.”

In the default configuration, automatic updates will download and install the necessary updates. Many updates need to make changes to processes or functions that are actively used while Windows is running, though, so the system must be restarted in order for the update process to complete. Windows will alert you to the fact that you need to restart the PC in order to complete installation of the updates, but users have the option of postponing the restart for up to three days. If you keep delaying or postponing the updates, you never complete the installation, and you defeat the purpose of having automatic updates in the first place.

If your computer is left on, and you’re away from it for a long enough period of time, it will automatically restart. When you return, the patches and updates will be applied.

Zero day exploits make exciting headlines, but the reality is that the vast majority of cyber attacks rely on existing vulnerabilities that simply haven’t been patched yet. Most malware developers are too lazy to devote time and effort to discovering an unknown zero day flaw, but once a vulnerability is made public and the vendor issues a patch for it, half of the cyber crook’s work is already done. The flaw is already identified, and by reverse-engineering the patch, malware developers can determine the right trigger to use to craft an exploit for it.

The goal is always to stay a step ahead of the attackers. Once a patch or update is released, the clock is ticking—it’s really only a matter of time until an exploit is crafted to attack the underlying vulnerability. That’s why it’s important to keep your PC updated with the latest patches.

Next time you see that notification that Windows needs to restart to complete the installation of patches and updates, don’t ignore it. Save your work, and reboot. You can thank me later.

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