Final Patch Tuesday of 2012 includes five 'critical' updates

Microsoft is finishing the year with seven new security bulletins--and five are rated 'critical'.

Today is the last Patch Tuesday of the year. There are seven new security bulletins from Microsoft this month, and five of them are rated "critical." If you use Windows, Microsoft Office, or Internet Explorer, you've got some work to do to get these new patches applied.

MS12-082 and MS12-083, security bulletins related to flaws in DirectPlay and IP-HTTPS respectively, are rated Important. The Critical security bulletins apply to the Windows operating system, Microsoft Office, the Internet Explorer Web browser, and Microsoft Exchange Server--and a few of them require a restart for the patch to take effect.

Andrew Storms, director of security operations for nCircle, singles out MS12-077--the cumulative update for Internet Explorer--as the most urgent of the bunch. "Attackers will be targeting online holiday shoppers with this bug, so patch this before you do anything else."

Storms also notes the unusual fact that the critical flaw in IE affects all versions, but is only exploitable on the newer versions, which are ostensibly "more secure" than their predecessors, including IE10 on Windows RT. Storms quips, "We can be sure this bug is not a gift Microsoft wanted to receive this holiday season."

In a blog post, Kaspersky Labs expert Kurt Baumgartner spotlights MS12-079--the Microsoft Office security bulletin. Baumgartner stresses that Microsoft Office has been a very popular target as an attack vector for spear phishing attacks in 2012. He points out that much of the attention from malware developers that used to be reserved for Adobe Reader and Adobe Flash exploits seems to now be invested in cranking out exploits aimed at Microsoft Office.

The Microsoft Office vulnerability is particularly concerning because the exploit does not require any user interaction. The RTF email flaw can be triggered just by viewing a malformed email in the Outlook preview pane.

Barring some sort of urgent zero-day exploit requiring an out-of-band patch, Microsoft will finish the year with a total of 83 security bulletins. That is a 17 percent drop from 2011, and a more than 20 percent drop in the annual security bulletin total compared to 2010.

It's not all about the security bulletins themselves, though. Each security bulletin might actually address a handful of underlying vulnerabilities, so the number of security bulletins don't necessarily tell the whole story.

What is arguably more impressive than the general decline in total security bulletins is the more consistent number of security bulletins from month to month this year. The past couple years it seems like Microsoft has gone from one or two security bulletins one month to 10 or more the next month like a yo-yo.

Qualys CTO Wolfgang Kandek believes the more consistent rhythm is indicative of a more mature process. Hopefully that is true, and IT admins can look forward to a smooth release pattern in 2013 as well.

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