Stealth Windows Updates Causing XP Repair Headaches

Earlier this month, researcher Scott Dunn, in an article in the Windows Secrets newsletter, revealed that Microsoft had been modifying files on users' PCs that are used by Windows Update to determine when new updates are available. The problem, noted Dunn, was that Microsoft was doing so without informing users that their systems were being altered.

Microsoft subsequently acknowledged the practice, but said it's a necessary step aimed at helping the Windows Update service to function more effectively.

In an article posted Thursday in the Windows Secrets newsletter, Dunn provided evidence that these newer, 'stealth' updates are blocking the repair function in Windows XP, which is used to restore system files on malfunctioning PCs.

After a user runs the XP repair function and rolls the system back to an earlier state, Windows Update has to repeat the process of downloading newer updates. But these updates cause compatibility problems and make it impossible for users to install the latest 80 patches from Microsoft, according to Dunn.

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"Obviously, this isn't the first time a patch has caused a problem, but at least in the past people could wait, do some testing, and decide whether they needed to install the update," said Dunn. "In this case, the patch is forced on you, and you also have no resources to find a solution."

Solution providers believe Microsoft has users' best interests at heart in pushing out the updates, but some have differing opinions as to whether the practice is ethically sound.

"While I think Microsoft is doing this to improve security, I think it's important that people have the choice to decide whether to download the patch," said Chris Rue, CEO of Black Warrior Technology, a Northport, Ala.-based solution provider.

"For example, I don't put anything on my clients' PCs without letting them know, because it's my responsibility to ensure that they have the opportunity to make that decision for themselves," Rue added.

Todd Swank, vice president of marketing at Nor-Tech, a system builder in Burnsville, Minn., says Microsoft is trying to deal with the reality that most users don't place a high priority on updating their machines with the latest patches.

"If a patch is out there that's going to prevent harm being done to peoples' PCs, it's probably better to have it on automatic update. Personally, I think it's a good move because they're trying to make the OS more secure," said Swank.

A Microsoft spokesperson told CRN the vendor is aware of the issues with Windows Update and is in the process of investigating.