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Microsoft dispels rumors of stealth Windows updates

It's all about updating the updater

Mobile application security vulnerability report

Microsoft officials are seeking to dispel rumors the company is performing stealth updates on Windows machines. They are also pledging to be more transparent in the future to prevent such misunderstandings from happening again.

Reports of secret updates began circulating after at least two sites reported that Windows Update pushed patches on machines - even though the automatic update feature had been disabled. Both this post on ZDNet Hardware 2.0 and this one from Windows Secrets said machines running Vista and XP SP2 versions of Windows each had nine files updated on them despite being configured to prevent the auto-updates.

"It's surprising that these files can be changed without the user's knowledge," the Windows Secrets post said. "The Automatic Updates dialog box in the Control Panel can be set to prevent updates from being installed automatically. However, with Microsoft's latest stealth move, updates to the WU executables seem to be installed regardless of the settings - without notifying users."

That prompted a Microsoft program manager to write his own blog post, explaining that the nine files related to the Windows Update service itself. Microsoft updates them from time to time to ensure that Windows Update will behave in dependable manner in the future.

"Had we failed to update the service automatically, users would not have been able to successfully check for updates and, in turn, users would not have had updates installed automatically or received expected notifications," the product manager, Nate Clinton, wrote. "That result would not only fail to meet customer expectations but even worse, that result would lead users to believe that they were secure even though there was no installation and/or notification of upgrades."

Windows Update can be configured in several ways. They include: (1) automatically download and install new patches, (2) automatically download them but allow the user to install them at a later time, or (3) simply notify the user that updates are available. Users who selected any of these options would have had files updated, he said.

There is a fourth option for Windows Update, which is for it to be turned off altogether. Windows Update "does not automatically update itself when Automatic Updates is turned off," Clinton wrote.

The issue has touched off concern among some that allowing Microsoft or any other company to install files without their prior knowledge and consent sets a dangerous precedent.

"The point of this explanation is not to suggest that we were as transparent as we could have been; to the contrary, people have told us that we should have been clearer on how Windows Update behaves when it updates itself," Clinton wrote. ®

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