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The Twisty Maze of Getting Microsoft Office Updates

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While investigating the fixes for the recent Microsoft Office OLE vulnerability, I encountered a situation that led me to believe that Office 2016 was not properly patched. However, after further investigation, I realized that the update process of Microsoft Update has changed. If you are not aware of these changes, you may end up with a Microsoft Office installation that is missing security updates. With the goal of preventing others from making similar mistakes as I have, I outline in this blog post how the way Microsoft Office receives updates has changed.

The Bad Old Days

Let's go back about 15 years in Windows computing to the year 2002. You've got a shiny new desktop with Windows XP and Office XP as well. If you knew where the option was in Windows, you could turn on Automatic Updates to download and notify you when OS updates are made available. What happens when there is a security update for Office? If you happened to know about the OfficeUpdate website, you could run an ActiveX control to check for Microsoft Office updates. Notice that the Auto Update link is HTTP instead of HTTPS. These were indeed dark times. But we had Clippy to help us through it!

officexp_clippy.png

Microsoft Update: A New Hope

Let's fast-forward to the year 2005. We now have Windows XP Service Pack 2, which enables a firewall by default. Windows XP SP2 also encourages you to enable Automatic Updates for the OS. But what about our friend Microsoft Office? As it turns out, an enhanced version of Windows Update, called Microsoft Update, was also released in 2005. The new Microsoft Update, instead of checking for updates for only the OS itself, now also checks for updates for other Microsoft software, such as Microsoft Office. If you enabled this optional feature, then updates for Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office would be installed.

Microsoft Update in Modern Windows Systems

Enough about Windows XP, right? How does Microsoft Update factor into modern, supported Windows platforms? Microsoft Update is still supported through current Windows 10 platforms. But in each of these versions of Windows, Microsoft Update continues to be an optional component, as illustrated in the following screen shots for Windows 7, 8.1, and 10.

Windows 7

win7_windows_update.png

win7_microsoft_update.png

Once this dialog is accepted, we can now see that Microsoft Update has been installed. We will now receive updates for Microsoft Office through the usual update mechanisms for Windows.

win7_microsoft_update_installed.png

Windows 8.1

Windows 8.1 has Microsoft Update built-in; however, the option is not enabled by default.

win8_microsoft_update.png

Windows 10

Like Windows 8.1, Windows 10 also includes Microsoft Update, but it is not enabled by default.

win10_microsoft_update.png

Microsoft Click-to-Run

Microsoft Click-to-Run is a feature where users "... don't have to download or install updates. The Click-to-Run product seamlessly updates itself in the background." The Microsoft Office 2016 installation that I obtained through MSDN is apparently packaged in Click-to-Run format. How can I tell this? If you view the Account settings in Microsoft Office, a Click-to-Run installation looks like this:

office16_about.png

Additionally, you should notice a process called OfficeClickToRun.exe running:

procmon-ctr.png

Microsoft Office Click-to-Run and Updates

The interaction between a Click-to-Run version of Microsoft Office and Microsoft Updates is confusing. For the past dozen years or so, when a Windows machine completed running Microsoft Update, you could be pretty sure that Microsoft Office was up to date. As a CERT vulnerability analyst, my standard process on a Microsoft patch Tuesday was to restore my virtual machine snapshots, run Microsoft Update, and then consider that machine to have fully patched Microsoft software.

I first noticed a problem when my "fully patched" Office 2016 system still executed calc.exe when I opened my proof-of-concept exploit for CVE-2017-0199. Only after digging into the specific version of Office 2016 that was installed on my system did I realize that it did not have the April 2017 update installed, despite having completed Microsoft Update and rebooting. After setting up several VMs with Office 2016 installed, I was frequently presented with a screen like this:

office2016_no_updates_smaller.png

The problem here is obvious:

  • Microsoft Update is indicating that the machine is fully patched when it isn't.
  • The version of Office 2016 that is installed is from September 2015, which is outdated.
  • The above screenshot was taken on May 3, 2017, which shows that updates weren't available when they actually were.

I would love to have determined why my machines were not automatically retrieving updates. But unfortunately there appear to be too many variables at play to pinpoint the issue. All I can conclude is that my Click-to-Run installations of Microsoft Office did not receive updates for Microsoft Office 2016 until as late as 2.5 weeks after the patches were released to the public. And in the case of the April 2017 updates, there was at least one vulnerability that was being exploited in the wild, with exploit code being publicly available. This amount of time is a long window of exposure.

It is worth noting that the manual update button within the Click-to-Run Office 2016 installation does correctly retrieve and install updates. The problem I see here is that it requires manual user interaction to be sure that your software is up to date. Microsoft has indicated to me that this behavior is by design:

[Click-to-Run] updates are pushed automatically through gradual rollouts to ensure the best product quality across the wide variety of devices and configurations that our customers have.

Personally, I wish that the update paths for Microsoft Office were more clearly documented.

Conclusions and Recommendations

To prevent this problem from happening to you, I recommend that you do the following:

  • Enable Microsoft Update to ensure that you receive updates for software beyond just the core Windows operating system. This switch can be automated using the technique described here: https://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/aa826676.aspx
  • If you have a Click-to-Run version of Microsoft Office installed, be aware that it will not receive updates via Microsoft Update.
  • If you have a Click-to-Run version of Microsoft Office and want to ensure timely installation of security updates, manually check for updates rather than relying on the automatic update capability of Click-to-Run.
  • Enterprise customers should refer to Deployment guide for Office 365 ProPlus to ensure that updates for Click-to-Run installations meet their security compliance timeframes.

About the Author

Will Dormann

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