McAfee apologizes for crippling PCs with bad update

Anti-virus vendor blames changes in testing for letting buggy update get loose, but users want to hear CEO say 'sorry'

McAfee apologized late Thursday for crippling thousands of customers' computer with a flawed update the day before.

"I want to apologize on behalf of McAfee and say that we're extremely sorry for any impact the faulty signature update file may have caused you and your organizations," said Barry McPherson, executive vice president of support and customer service, in a post to the company's blog near midnight yesterday.

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It was the first apology by a McAfee executive for the fiasco, which started early Wednesday when an anti-virus signature update wrongly quaranti-ned a critical Windows system file after identifying it as a low-threat virus.

Reports, confirmed and anecdotal, put the number of affected PCs in the thousands, the majority of them in businesses. Only systems running Windows XP Service Pack 3 (SP3), the newest version that Gartner analyst John Pescatore estimated had a 50 percent share of the enterprise market, were clobbered by the bad update.

Computers crippled by the update crashed and rebooted repeatedly, and lost their connection to the network, a symptom that forced support staff to visit each downed PC, thus dragging out the time required to resuscitate machines.

McPherson provided a bare bones explanation of how the flawed update managed to get through McAfee's testing. "The problem arose during the testing process for this DAT file," he said. "We recently made a change to our QA [quality assurance] environment that resulted in a faulty DAT making its way out of our test environment and onto customer systems.

McAfee is adding what McPherson called "additional QA protocols" to any updates that may impact critical Windows system files -- like the "svchost.exe" file that was erroneously quaranti-ned Wednesday -- and will utilize its Artemis technology to provide customers a whitelist of hands-off system files.

Artemis is a McAfee technology that its desktop software uses to help identify suspicious files by matching their digital "fingerprints" with a database stored on the company's servers.

From the few comments added to McPherson's blog by 1:30 a.m. Eastern time today, McPherson's apology didn't sit well with users. "Let me say I am glad we have switched nearly 75 percent of our clients away from your product prior to this happening," said someone identified only as Charles H. "I can't imagine the chaos if we hadn't. It was chaos enough."

User were much blunter the day before when they commented on a post McPherson wrote late Wednesday. That entry, titled "A Long Day at McAfee" raised the hackles of many who added their two cents.

"I'm not really interested in how hard your day was. Lots of folks had a rough day yesterday," said someone using the moniker "JustanIT Guy" in a comment Thursday. "What we should be hearing is how an update that smashed any PC running XP Service Pack 3 made it out the door."

Several comments asked why McAfee CEO David DeWalt had not issued an apology. DeWalt, who also occasionally posts to the McAfee blog, last did so on April 15, when he wrote about hosting the company's Public Sector Summit on security and current cyber threats.

"It is extremely telling that the CEO, David DeWalt, has not issued a statement about this matter on the McAfee web site," said a user identified only as Mark who commented on McPherson's blog.

Early Thursday, McAfee made available a semi-automated tool, dubbed "SuperDAT Remediation Tool," that restores a crippled computer. SuperDAT can be downloaded using a link on this support document.

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 email address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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

This story, "McAfee apologizes for crippling PCs with bad update" was originally published by Computerworld.

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