Hackers exploited Word flaw for months before Microsoft issued patch

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Hackers exploited Word flaw for months before Microsoft issued patch
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To understand why it is so difficult to defend computers from even moderately capable hackers, consider the case of the security flaw officially known as CVE-2017-0199.

The bug was unusually dangerous but of a common genre: it was in Microsoft software, could allow a hacker to seize control of a personal computer with little trace, and was fixed on 11 April in Microsoft's regular monthly security update.

But it had travelled a rocky, nine-month journey from discovery to resolution, which cyber security experts say is an unusually long time.

Google's security researchers, for example, give vendors just 90 days' warning before publishing flaws they find. Microsoft declined to say how long it usually takes to patch a flaw.

While Microsoft investigated, hackers found the flaw and manipulated the software to spy on unknown Russian speakers, possibly in Ukraine.

And a group of thieves used it to bolster their efforts to steal from millions of online bank accounts in Australia and other countries.

Those conclusions and other details emerged from interviews with researchers at cyber security firms who studied the events and analysed versions of the attack code.

Microsoft confirmed the sequence of events.

The tale began last July, when Ryan Hanson, a 2010 Idaho State University graduate and consultant at boutique security firm Optiv Inc in Boise, found a weakness in the way that Microsoft Word processes documents from another format. That allowed him to insert a link to a malicious programme that would take control of a computer.

Combining flaws

Hanson spent some months combining his find with other flaws to make it more deadly, he said on Twitter. Then in October he told Microsoft. The company often pays a modest bounty of a few thousands dollars for the identification of security risks.

Soon after that point six months ago, Microsoft could have fixed the problem, the company acknowledged. But it was not that simple. A quick change in the settings on Word by customers would do the trick, but if Microsoft notified customers about the bug and the recommended changes, it would also be telling hackers about how to break in.

Alternatively, Microsoft could have created a patch that would be distributed as part of its monthly software updates. But the company did not patch immediately and instead dug deeper. It was not aware that anyone was using Hanson's method, and it wanted to be sure it had a comprehensive solution.

"We performed an investigation to identify other potentially similar methods and ensure that our fix addresses [sic] more than just the issue reported," Microsoft said through a spokesman, who answered emailed questions on the condition of anonymity. "This was a complex investigation."

Hanson declined interview requests.

The saga shows that Microsoft's progress on security issues, as well as that of the software industry as a whole, remains uneven in an era when the stakes are growing dramatically.

The United States has accused Russia of hacking political party emails to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, a charge Russia denies, while shadowy hacker groups opposed to the US government have been publishing hacking tools used by the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency.

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