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Infosecurity Europe 2004 Microsoft is having second thoughts about the idea of testing security patches with select users prior to their release.

At last year's Infosecurity Europe conference, the software giant said it was considering introducing an external testing programme to improve the quality of its security patches. Craig Fiebig, general manager of the Secure Business Unit at Microsoft, said at the time: "We need to think of the release of a patch in the same way we would the release of a product. There needs to be broader testing... Microsoft is considering introducing external testing with key customers."

Twelve months on, Microsoft's thinking is that external testing of security patches might create more problems than it solves.

Stuart Okin, Chief Security Officer at Microsoft UK, asked: "How do you beta a patch so it is not reverse engineered to create an exploit?" Microsoft has consistently argued that the vast majority of security exploits and malware comes out after it releases patches but before many users have had a chance to apply them. If hackers got a hold of a pre-release patch they could see what it fixed and therefore what was vulnerable on unpatched systems, the thinking goes.

The open source community has no such concerns about releasing patches, perhaps because the reliability record of open source fixes is better than that of Microsoft. Difficulty in applying patches and instances where fixes fail to work properly - or cause unfortunate side effects - has long been an issue in Microsoft shops.

For example, one of four security patches released by Microsoft this month (MS04-011) has caused trouble for several Register readers, reflected more widely in postings to Internet news groups. Some Windows 2000 users have reported troubles in booting PCs, using anti-virus packages and problems with their sound cards, after applying the fix.

The four patches fixed 20 vulnerabilities in total. The problematic patch is designed to correct 14 Windows bugs alone. One of these – an SSL vulnerability – has been the subject of an exploit and sustained hacker attack this month. Not applying the patch creates DDoS and system compromise risks but applying the patch can create system instability problems.

So users are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Wider testing would likely help reduce these problems but Redmond's paranoia - about its own customers - means this is increasingly unlikely to happen anytime soon. ®

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MS score card: four patches, 20 vulns, heaps of trouble
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