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Contributing writer

Laptop updaters riddled with security holes

May 31, 20163 mins
Application SecurityData and Information SecuritySecurity

A recent test of pre-installed updater software on 10 laptops showed that every single one had security problems

laptop shock
Credit: Thinkstock

A recent test of pre-installed updater software on 10 laptops showed that every single one had security problems.

“We went and bought about 10 laptops,” said Darren Kemp, security researcher at Duo Security. “And every single vendor had their own piece of software to perform software updates, including the Microsoft Signature Editions, and they were all pretty terrible.”

For example, some laptop manufacturers weren’t using encryption in their updaters.

“We found exploitable vulnerabilities in every vendor,” he said.

Darren Kemp, security researcher at Duo Security

There was one updater that was pretty secure, he added, on a Lenovo laptop. But that same laptop also had a second updater installed, which had no security features whatsoever.

The Dell laptop had a high-risk vulnerability related to certificates. Asus and Lenovo each had a high-risk vulnerability that could have resulted in arbitrate code execution, while Hewlett Packard and Acer each had two.

“The nature and the type of vulnerabilities is that they are easy to find and easy to exploit, in most cases,” Kemp said. “It doesn’t require a lot of technical wizardry to find and exploit these vulnerabilities. They’re very easy to target.”

Laptop manufacturers build their own, proprietary updaters to update the software that they install on the machines, such as their proprietary management and support tools.

“Right now, the Microsoft updater is used to update only Microsoft software and approved drivers,” Kemp said, forcing manufacturers to build their own.

However, the main function of the proprietary updaters is to update all the bloatware that they pre-install on their machines — bloatware that itself has been linked to many security vulnerabilities.

“It seemed with some of these vendors, that even they had difficulty tracking their systems and who had what where,” Kemp said.

Enterprises can build their own clean images, that they know and trust, for the laptops they issue to employees, he said.

Laptops running Microsoft “Signature Edition” systems are intended to be free of third-party bloatware. However, proprietary software updaters and support packages are often still present on the machines.

Companies can also move to thin clients such as the Chromebook, that run a stripped-down operating system and a browser.

“It is absolutely a solution to that problem because of the hardening features and ease of management,” said Kemp.

The researchers tested laptops running Windows 8.1 or Windows 10, in both out-of-box configurations and after pending updates were applied. The 10 laptops were the Lenovo Flex 3, the HP Envy, the Microsoft Signature Edition of the HP Stream x360, the UK version of the Lenovo G50-80, the UK version of the Acer Aspire F15, the Canada version of the Dell Inspiron 14, the Microsoft Signature Edition of the Dell Inspiron 15-5548, the Asus TP200s and the Microsoft Signature Edition of the Asus TP200s.

Duo Labs recommended that vendors harden their updaters through consistent use of TLS, implement manifest signing, and perform proper validation of Authenticode signatures.