Protect Windows XP from zero-day flaw in HCP protocol

Microsoft is plagued with another zero-day security flaw, but thankfully there is a workaround to protect vulnerable systems

Earlier this week was Microsoft's Patch Tuesday for June--a busy Patch Tuesday with ten new security bulletins fixing 34 different vulnerabilities. However, there is now a publicly disclosed vulnerability with potentially dire consequences that didn't make the list of patches this month. IT administrators need to understand the risks, and act now to mitigate the threat and protect Windows XP systems from the HCP protocol vulnerability.

A Microsoft Security Response Center (MSRC) blog post explains "We are aware of a publicly disclosed vulnerability affecting Windows XP and Windows Server 2003. We are not aware of any current exploitation of this issue and customers running Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows Server 2008, and Windows Server 2008 R2, are not vulnerable to this issue, or at risk of attack." [the emphasis is Microsoft's, not mine]

Andrew Storms, director of security operations for nCircle, commented via e-mail to say "Microsoft has had a zero day every month this year, and in their position as the industry leader in enterprise security standards, this has got to be disheartening for them. It's also not doing their reputation in the security community any good."

Thankfully for Microsoft, Adobe is the current poster child for lax application security, so some of the negative press normally reserved for Microsoft is being redirected at Adobe instead. Recent security flaws affecting Adobe Flash and Adobe Reader have kept Adobe in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Storms points out "The bad news on this zero-day is that all users of Windows XP are affected, and the vulnerability makes drive-by attacks possible. The installed base for XP is huge because both consumers and enterprise customers have been very reluctant to upgrade to Vista and are just now starting to move to Windows7.

Microsoft should have had more time to address this issue properly. According to the MSRC blog "This issue was reported to us on June 5th, 2010 by a Google security researcher and then made public less than four days later, on June 9th, 2010. Public disclosure of the details of this vulnerability and how to exploit it, without giving us time to resolve the issue for our potentially affected customers, makes broad attacks more likely and puts customers at risk."

Storms says that Tavis Ormandy, the Google security researcher in question, "has been trying to separate his actions from his employer, but you have to wonder if he is adding fuel to the very public fire between Microsoft and Google by continuing to draw negative attention to Microsoft's security process."

Microsoft's MSRC blog states that Microsoft will be issuing a security advisory related to this vulnerability, and is continuing research into a proper fix. In the meantime, Microsoft offers the following workaround to protect vulnerable systems:

1. Click Start, and then click Run.

2. Type regedit, and then click OK.

3. Expand HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT, and then highlight the HCP key.

4. Right-click the HCP key, and then click Delete.

This workaround unregisters the HCP protocol in Windows, and will break all local, legitimate help links that use hcp://. For example, links in Control Panel may no longer work.

nCircle's Storms summed up by stating what should be increasingly obvious to IT administrators. "Any users on the fence about upgrading from XP should take a hard look at all the security bulletins for the last six months; the information there should inform your thinking."

You can follow Tony on his Facebook page, or contact him by email at tony_bradley@pcworld.com. He also tweets as @Tony_BradleyPCW.

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Tony Bradley

PC World (US online)
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