With attackers finding new ways to exploit a critical flaw in Internet Explorer, Microsoft has released a patch for the problem, ahead of its next scheduled round of security updates.
The patch fixes a critical vulnerability in the way Internet Explorer renders Vector Markup Language (VML) graphics. Hackers had been exploiting the flaw, which also affects some versions of Outlook, for more than a week, and in recent days malicious activity had been on the upswing.
The out-of-cycle release is unusual, but not unprecedented.
Microsoft generally releases its security updates on the second Tuesday of every month, giving system administrators a predictable way to set aside time to test the new software. Occasionally, the company will release patches ahead of time if a flaw is being widely exploited by attackers. In January it patched a critical flaw in the Microsoft Windows Metafile (WMF) image-rendering engine after it became a widespread problem.
With attack code that works on the latest version of Windows XP now publicly available, the VML bug is shaping up as a very serious concern for administrators, said Ken Dunham, the director of Verisign's iDefense Rapid Response Team. VML attacks have now "dwarfed the WMF activity in the same period of time compared to last year," he said.
By Tuesday, more than 3,000 Web sites were already infecting users with malware that exploited the VML bug, according to Dunham. One week into the WMF outbreak last January, iDefense saw about 600 sites exploiting the problem.
Security experts also warn that there are many variants of the VML malware, some of which may be missed by security software. Researchers at iDefense are now looking at a dozen possible variations of the VML exploit code and have confirmed the existence of seven variants, Dunham said. "With WMF there wasn't nearly as much modification. We see a lot of different permutations and obfuscation techniques being utilize with VML attacks."
A group of security researchers released a patch for the VML flaw late last week, independent of Microsoft, but criminals have even found a way to exploit the fix.
In the past few days they have been circulating phony e-mails, claiming to be a patch for the VML problem. If downloaded, this fake patch actually installs malicious software on the victim's system, Dunham said.
Microsoft's next regularly scheduled security updates will be released Oct. 10.
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