Techworld

Adobe, now 'married' to Microsoft, moves Flash updates to Patch Tuesday

Will sync Flash security updates with partner's monthly schedule

Adobe on Tuesday announced that it will pair future security updates for its popular Flash Player with Microsoft's Patch Tuesday schedule.

At the same time, Adobe issued an update that patched seven critical Flash vulnerabilities, and Microsoft shipped fixes for Internet Explorer 10 (IE10), which includes an embedded copy of Flash.

But the move to synchronize Flash Player updates with Microsoft's monthly patch schedule was the bigger news. "Starting with the next Flash Player security update, we plan to release regularly-scheduled security updates for Flash Player on 'Patch Tuesdays,'" Adobe said in a statement yesterday.

"Microsoft and Adobe are now officially married," cracked Andrew Storms, director of security operations at nCircle Security, in an email reply to questions. "They started dating when they decided to share the MAPP program [and] once Microsoft agreed to embed Flash in IE10, [it was] inevitable that Adobe was going to be strong-armed into following Microsoft's patch cadence."

Under MAPP, for "Microsoft Active Protections Program," Microsoft provides select security vendors pre-patch information to give them time to craft detection signatures for upcoming exploits or malware. In July 2010, Adobe began using MAPP to deliver vulnerability information about its products to security firms.

Microsoft issues its security updates on the second Tuesday of each month, but up to now Adobe has released Flash bug fixes at irregular intervals. So far this year, Adobe has released nine Flash security updates: One in February, two in March, one each in May and June, two in August, one in October, and one in November.

The two companies' unsynchronized patching became an issue after Microsoft announced it would bake Flash Player into IE10 for Windows 8 and its tablet spin-off, Windows RT. But problems surfaced in September when Microsoft said it would not patch IE10 for at least six weeks, even though Adobe had issued updates the month before that addressed at least one vulnerability hackers were already exploiting.

Microsoft later recanted and issued an update to IE10, then followed with another in October on the same day Adobe shipped its Flash fixes.

At the time, security experts criticized both Adobe and Microsoft for releasing unexpected updates -- Microsoft rarely deviates from its Patch Tuesday timetable -- and said those updates confused customers, especially enterprise IT staffers who rely on Microsoft's predictable schedule.

Even though the Flash updates will add more Patch Tuesday work for users, security professionals praised Adobe's change.

"Concentrating updates on a single day is a benefit for any organization that manages patch roll-outs," said Wolfgang Kandek, CTO of Qualys, in an email. "That way the update can be handled by the same decision process, which should streamline roll-outs and get Flash updates [installed] more widely."

Storms agreed. "In a few months, the Flash update will just be a regular part of the Patch Tuesday cycle," he predicted. "The move is going to force Adobe to get into a regular cycle with repeatable processes that their end users will come to recognize and appreciate."

Adobe spokeswoman Wieke Lips said her firm had "discussed both internally and coordinated with Microsoft" the move to Patch Tuesday.

Storms and Kandek suspected that Adobe's hand was forced -- whether of its own volition or at the urging of Microsoft -- when the latter decided to bundle Flash with IE10.

"The new Adobe timing is to accommodate the typical Patch Tuesday release schedule for Windows, which enterprise customers depend upon," Kandek said.

What was a surprise, Storms said, was that it took this long for Microsoft and Adobe to sync security releases, particularly after the backpedaling by Microsoft in September. "That was a clear sign that despite the executive decision to put Flash in IE10, nobody considered the ramifications," Storms said. "Sadly, the people left holding the bag were Microsoft users on their brand new Windows 8 platform."

In hindsight, Storms was right: If there was one company destined to ride Patch Tuesday's coattails, it was Adobe, which has adopted Microsoft's security coding practices and used some of its anti-exploit "sandboxing" technologies in its Reader and Flash.

Microsoft declined to answer questions about Adobe's decision, including whether Microsoft had pressed its partner to make the call. Instead, the company issued a statement attributed to Dave Forstrom, a director in the firm's Trustworthy Computing group, that said, "Our customers tell us that they strongly prefer a predictable cadence of security-update releases, and we aim to honor that preference."

While Adobe characterized the decision as one of convenience and predictability for users rather than a security improvement, Kandek saw it slightly different.

"Releasing scheduled Adobe Flash updates any other time would force Microsoft to make their IE10 updates out-of-band, as they would want to maintain a close interval between Flash release and IE10 release," Kandek said.

If Microsoft was unwilling or unable to ship emergency updates for IE10, Windows 8 and Windows RT users would be vulnerable to quick-strike Flash exploits, potentially for weeks.

Adobe's Tuesday update patched seven vulnerabilities, all which could be used by hackers to hijack Windows PCs, Macs and machines running Linux. Engineers in Google's security team, as they often do, reported the seven to Adobe.

Microsoft updated IE10 on Windows 8 and Windows RT on Tuesday, making it the second time in a row that the company shipped patches the same day Adobe refreshed Flash.

Google, which has been bundling Flash with its Chrome browser for over two years, also updated its browser to include the patched version of the media player.

IE10 on Windows 7, which Microsoft has pledged to release as a preview by mid-November, will not include an integrated version of Flash, but will rely on the traditional plug-in. Still, it will, like other browsers, receive future updates on Patch Tuesday.

Adobe also said that it would, if necessary, issue emergency updates outside Microsoft's schedule to quash "zero-day" bugs.

Windows 8 and Windows RT users can obtain today's Flash update for IE10 via the Windows Update service, while others can either download the revised plug-in from Adobe's website or use the Flash updating tool.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

Read more about security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.

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