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Windows XP repair disk kills automatic updates

Critics speak out of both sides of mouths

Seven Steps to Software Security

Comment A commonly used method for repairing Windows computers can disable the automatic installation of Microsoft updates, or patches, it was revealed this week.

The company is getting a kicking from critics for this - the same people who slammed the company two weeks ago when Microsoft forced a Windows patch on users who had turned off automatic updates.

They have a point, but their latest tirades also show them speaking out of both sides of their mouths.

Two weeks ago, they rightfully said how misguided it was when, in July, Microsoft issued a patch that automatically installed itself even when Windows users specifically opted out of automatic updates. The issue boiled down to control, and since the PC belonged to the end user, it was the end user who should ultimately decide what software runs on it.

Beyond that bedrock principle, many IT administrators also said that forcing installs without a company's consent or knowledge could jeopardize compliance requirements since as they could no longer affirm they were in complete control of machines storing patient records and other sensitive types of data.

Hatch, patch, match, dispatch

Microsoft eventually explained that the forced update concerned Windows Update itself, and as such, was installed on machines that were configured to keep track of new patches, even if the user had opted not to have them automatically applied. Failure to patch Windows Update would prevent it from working reliably, Microsoft said.

Redmond also admitted it could have been more transparent, meaning it should have explicitly explained that unless a user completely shuts down Windows Update (and not for instance sets it to download updates and install them later) certain files related to Windows Update will automatically change from time to time.

That seemed like the end of the debate, but it wasn't.

The latest friction came after a post here by Scott Dunn and a piece here by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes pointed out that users who used the repair option from a Windows XP CD-ROM were no longer able to install Windows updates, putting them at considerable risk for Worms and other types of malware.

It turns out the repair disk - which is often used to roll back a corrupted version of Windows an earlier, undamaged state - unregisters some of the files that were installed in the Windows Update update, and in doing so, prevents Windows Update from working at all.

This, they suggested, was proof positive that the forced update from July, which by dint of its version number was branded 7.0.600.381, was nefarious after all.

"Now that we know that version .381 prevents a repaired instance of XP from getting critical patches, 'harmless' no longer describes the situation," Dunn writes. "The crippling of Windows Update illustrates why many computer professionals demand to review updates for software conflicts before widely installing upgrades."

Rather than raise red herrings about stealth updates, we should recognize the true fault here, which is that repair disks break Windows Update, something that should never, ever happen.

Latest fix

In a blog post here, Microsoft's Nate Clinton says the company has issued a KB article to restore Windows Update after it becomes disabled.

Now that Microsoft has recognized the problem and issued a fix, it needs to redouble its efforts to make sure Windows Update never again disabled.

But it's inconsistent for critics to take Microsoft to task for pushing an update that was necessary for the continued smooth running of Windows Update and then gripe when the update gets undone by a repair disk. Microsoft's lack of transparency - although a problem - wasn't at issue here so much as a needed change in Windows Update that could be undone by an officially sanctioned utility that many Windows admins rely on.

As the linchpin for a securely running machine, Windows Update will inevitably have to be updated from time to time. Here's hoping Microsoft provides better notice in the future - and that users heed common sense when told to install it. ®

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