Tales from the Evil Empire

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Bertrand Le Roy

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How I got attacked by Windows Update

I was writing a wiki page when it happened. The system restart dialog from Windows Update had been blinking helplessly in the task bar for a few hours as I didn’t have time for a reboot yet.

And then, right in the middle of a sentence, the effing dialog decides that I’ve been ignoring it for too long, puts itself in front and gives itself focus.

You can see what happened then. My fingers were continuing to type, not realizing that the wiki page had gone to the back. Now the thing is, space is a fairly common key to hit when you’re writing English. But in dialogs, that’s also the key that triggers the default button. Which, in the case of that particular Windows Update dialog, is “Restart”.

So before I realized what was going on, I was seeing all my windows close, including of course the wiki page I was working on.

No application should ever be allowed to steal the focus. EVER!

The way I feel about this is exactly as if I had fallen victim to a malicious program doing a clickthrough attack on me. Clickthrough attacks are attacks where a program moves a button in front of the one you really wanted to click. In the most innocuous cases it’s to force you to click on an ad, and in the most severe ones it’s to trick you into making an unwanted security decision that could compromise your privacy or your machine.

And now of course, I have to rewrite my wiki page.


tomb said:

When I have myself in the same scenario I go to services and just turn off the 'Automatic Updates' service. It will resume when you reboot if you don't mess with the settings.

That popup warning is the most annoying thing ever.

# January 23, 2010 12:20 AM

Bertrand Le Roy said:

@tomb: yes, well, if your enterprise policy doesn't allow you to do that... But thanks for the tip.

# January 23, 2010 12:38 AM

Damien Guard said:

I've lost more work to Windows Update than I ever have to a compromised system...

Oh the irony.


# January 23, 2010 1:20 AM

Joannes Vermorel said:

There are OS where it has been possible to do update for years without reboot ... at least as long you don't recompile your kernel.

# January 23, 2010 3:42 AM

Bertrand Le Roy said:

@Joannes: well, the problem is that those OS can run none of the software I need to work (and play). Plus, I've tried them all and I prefer Windows. There are OS where it has been possible to work for years without having to recompile the kernel ;)

# January 23, 2010 4:17 AM

Steven said:

My favorite is when it happens to me on a production server :)

# January 23, 2010 9:40 AM

Anonymous Coward said:

The first thing I do after installing Windows is go into Control Panel, Windows Updates, and change the blasted thing to download updates but let me decide when to install them. I got fed up waking up on Wednesday mornings to find that Windows had killed everything (especially that require hours to complete and have to restarted from scratch) in the holy name of updates.

Of course, you may have to learn to deal with all the crapware complaining your computer is at severe risk of catching on fire and being attacked by mutant ninja space aliens if set to anything other than "Let Microsoft have full control of the restart button on my computer."

It would be nice if there was another option to automatically install updates but remove the reboot nagware dialogs.

# January 23, 2010 7:10 PM

mareek said:

Why are you still using windows xp ? this annoying "feature" has been removed in vista.

# January 25, 2010 2:32 PM

Bertrand Le Roy said:

@mareek: errr, I don't know where you got that info, but I'm running Windows 7, so if it ever went away, it's back.

# January 25, 2010 4:45 PM

lucasbfr said:

I completely agree. There used to be a "prevent applications from stealing the focus" on Windows but I can't find it anymore.

Funnily enough, I have the reverse problem with the UAC: it often fails to steal the focus and I can wait for long seconds before I understand the system is waiting for me :)

# January 26, 2010 6:06 AM

Tom said:

I agree with the previous comment about configuring Windows Update to let me decide when to download and install the updates, and feel bad for those who are prevented from setting it that way.  I only give it the go-ahead once I'm prepared to stop everything I'm doing, watch it, reboot, and make sure my system still comes back up ok.

# January 26, 2010 11:25 AM

jmorris said:

I _hate_ that 'feature'...drives me crazy. I can live with the icon in toolbar, but to suddenly have a window popup like that is invasive and particular annoying.

# January 26, 2010 4:50 PM

MowGreen said:

In Windows 7 it's rather easy to set Windows Update to " Check for updates but let me choose whether to download and install them " ?

Then one can download and install updates when one is ready to and not complain about a Default setting that was put there to protect those who are technologically enabled.

# January 28, 2010 4:16 PM

Bertrand Le Roy said:

@MowGreen: as I said in a previous comment, your enterprise policy may prevent you from touching those settings. In which case you're screwed. Plus, it doesn't change the fact that the default behavior is not acceptable: you just do not steal focus, especially if catastrophic data loss can result from it. Telling users that it's their fault and that they should just know how to change the default behavior is not an acceptable answer.

# January 28, 2010 4:48 PM

Sam Spade said:

What is so important that you can't save your Wiki post, and then spend a couple of minutes (if that) rebooting?  You say you are using Windows 7, yes? That means you're using a new machine, not some slow Win98 clunker that takes 10 minutes to reboot.  The fact that you complain about potential "catastrophic data loss" makes me shake my head even more.  Being a Microsoft employee you of all people should know that not rebooting after patches are installed is asking for trouble - system instability and weird errors being just two of the potential side effects until you finish the update process and reboot.

# January 28, 2010 5:59 PM

Harry Waldron said:

Hi Bertrand - Yes, I can relate to the lock down of settings due to corporate group policy security controls.  Likewise, I have seen WU gain focus as the primary Windows task when reboots are delayed (I believe it repeats reboot requests every 10 minutes or so).  And if you miss seeing the pop-up, you can indeed keying an "R" on your wiki page would start the reboot process.

I see your experience as a valuable "lessons learned", as what I usually do is to:

(1) Reboot ASAP - so that the new settings can take place immediately and you avoid instability issues that Sam Spade wisely noted.  Still, I've been there and done that in delaying a reboot due to time sensitive work I had to accomplish.  However, where possible always reboot right away.

(2) When you see the Microsoft Update shield or prompts to reboot, SAVE, SAVE, SAVE right away to prevent lightening from striking twice again.  I also start shutting down anything that's non-essential in preparation for a reboot.

In the corporate world, reboots can take 3-5 minutes before your system is "usable" sometimes due to the many things that may get automatically loaded that you don't have start-up control for.  I've learned to work with the system over the years  

# January 29, 2010 8:22 AM

Bertrand Le Roy said:

@Harry: I get that, but I think it's beside the point. This is a lesson that users should not have to learn. The feature should be designed so that it never puts user data at risk. That could be accomplished by simply not stealing focus. Extremely simple fix.

# January 29, 2010 1:20 PM

Bertrand Le Roy said:

@Sam: I am the judge of what "as soon as possible" means for my work. I will reboot eventually if I get a notification and I try to not start anything new. I just want to finish what I'm doing.

What if, for example, I'm on a remote meeting or in the middle of a presentation? Should I just tell my audience that sorry, but it's important that I reboot right now, just in case I accidentally browse to a compromised web site in the middle of my Powerpoint presentation? They can wait 3-4 minutes, can't they?

Oh, and this long-running task that has been going on for 2 hours in the background? That's fine, it can start over.

I'm sorry, those apologies just don't stand scrutiny.

And as you point out, I may actually not be in front of my desk and if the applications I use do not auto-save (like a wiki or almost any web app), forcing the reboot is not acceptable. "It is your responsibility to ensure that your work is being saved automatically" you say. How is it my responsibility that the application I'm using does not auto-save?

And if I am at my desk, stealing focus from me is not acceptable either.

Sure, there might be an electricity failure, which is why we have laptop batteries and UPS. And are you saying that the OS behaving as a power failure is acceptable?

Blaming the user for a badly-designed feature is not the right answer.

# January 29, 2010 2:08 PM

Hans Gruber said:

You didn't have time for a reboot but you had time to ignore it for a few hours?  Really?

It sounds like you chose to ignore the reboot prompts for hours and didn't save your work.  It was human error, but you want to blame your operating system for your own actions.  

Blaming the designers for not bothering to reboot is not the right answer either.

Just out of curiosity...is your machine locked down via corporate policy that does not permit you to change your Windows Update settings or you have just not bothered to change it?

# January 29, 2010 4:24 PM

Bertrand Le Roy said:

@Hans: and more user blaming... I've answered all that several times. Please read above comments.

# January 29, 2010 6:09 PM

Harry Waldron said:

As a follow-up I wanted to share that I agree that WU/MU gaining control (focus) might be something worth improving.  In our corporate email and calendaring systems at work, popup reminders also work the same way (changing app focus).  I can definitely empthasize, as it's another example of interupting work as you've described.

I'm guessing that MS implemented this notification technique because many folks leave their PCs on all the time and fail to reboot their systems daily. Still, it'd be nice to have a little more flexibilty to maybe allow one notification with an option to shutdown further re-notifications (in case you are working on something critical).

As Sam Space wisely shared earlier, MU/WU is trying to tell users that they absolutely need to reboot ASAP.  There are partially updated services that Windows can't restart.  They only way they can be relaunched is through a reboot.  

Ignoring a reboot for a long period of time will leave one unprotected.  For example, only after rebooting after MS08-067 were users protected from Conficker. I worked with some companies and users during that outbreak.  Many thought they were okay in installing the patch -- but there were still vulnerable until they rebooted.  

Secondly, there's even a chance that stability errors could be introduced for a highly involved update that might create comprimise Windows integrity.  This is rare though as usually most postponed updates still work out okay.

Mainly wanted to share that there is a highly beneficial purpose to rebooting asap.  If you can't, try to save critical work and work toward that goal soon.  I plan for an immediate reboot each Patch Tuesday or when out-of-band releases occur.  It gets them out of the way and I know my system is protected and the new changes are now affected.

Your post provides good awareness and constructive advice for the need to potentially improve the process further.  Security protective changes aren't always fun, easy, or even accurate processes.   They indeed interrupt out work, but help us in a very dangerous world as well.

# January 30, 2010 11:04 AM

Chris Quirke said:

I also advocate and use "download updates but let me decide when to install them" but it doesn't really work as you'd expect.

What I want to do, is download updates as soon as they are available (in case an exploit blizzard makes it impossible to do so later, in a worst-case scenario) and then later decide to initiale the install.

What actually happens, is that installation is merely postponed until the next shutdown.

I found out about this accidentally in XP.  I'd UNchecked every pending update, and yet still saw the Shutdown button changed to Shutdown and Install Updates.  

If I'd deselected all updates, what is being installed at this point?  Yup, everything that I'd explicitly set to NOT install - as judged by repeating the "yellow shield" UI and noting that everything I'd deselected, was selected again.

The shutdown UI is woolly, too - in XP, there's a link to override the visibly-modified Shutdown option, but what happens if you choose Restart instead?  The UI doesn't indicate updates will be installed, nor is there a UI to avoid that if that is to be bypassed.  

Same applies to system shutdown or restart that is mediated via other UIs, e.g. Ctl+Alt+Del Task Manager.

I now read that Windows 7 has (by design) broken the ability to shutdown without installing updates.

Then again, at least we're better off than we would be under Google, who silently push updates whenever they see fit, with no user control, and boast that as an advantage.  

Mind you, Microsoft has already pushed that far with file system auto-fixing, NTFS bad sector remapping (duplicating what hard drive firmware tries to do already) and forcing compatibility settings after auto-detecting what it thinks is an application failure (even when this is not so, e.g. a user-cancelled install).  

In all these cases, changes are automatically applied, poorly logged, and there is no ability to Undo.  We know these things are bad practice... unless the user is considered so trivial or stupid that the code is "smarter" and should override them.

# February 2, 2010 10:52 AM

wagneripjr said:

I agree with Bertrand. It's a total disrespect to the user when system steals focus, it's the worst thing I've saw in an OS.

The blinking task bar, is the good way to notify the user that the system needs his attention, and if the user decide to ignore it forever, it should stay there forever.

Humans not computers, should ever have the last word.

How about we start a campaign to make our voices heard!

# February 25, 2010 1:03 PM

MysteriousJohnny said:

This is an interesting discussion which I found after searching the net in an impotent rage after losing unsaved work to a sudden involuntary shut-down for mandatory updating.

What those who blame the victim seem to miss is that whilst you might have a deep interest an understanding of the workings of Windows 7 (or what have you), it is a mass market product. Thus, there will be users who do not understand (or care) what boxes need to be checked or files updated. They just want to write an email to their aging father or describe school fete for a newsletter.

When the computer shuts down without notice and they lose their information are they to blame? Are they at fault for not being the right kind of user?

Windows (and Microsoft) survives for reasons of encumbrance alone. Say what you like about OSX - it makes the user feel like they deserve to be using the software.

# March 7, 2010 9:34 PM

Bertrand Le Roy said:

Ha! It happened again this morning. This time, the dialog hijacked focus with no warning at all and caught my keystroke on the first time. That means this is a case where none of the lame excuses in comments above apply.

# May 12, 2010 1:58 PM

Matthew Aguilara said:

OMG. I was writing a article for a forum I frequent. I was writing for over an hour and lost everything. uploaded images to a third paty image hosing site and lost all of the url's.

When I purchased my computer it came with windows 7 pre-installed, I was not givin the opertunity to read any type of TOS. therefore It is not out of the realm of possibility to start a clas action lawsuit for people like me who have lost a peiece of intellectuallity that I may never ever recreate becuase of microsofts need to control every aspect of a persons PC.

The tactics employed by MS are not unlike the tactics of a communist dictatorship.

What uopdate is so important that the os needs to cancel and destroy any thing in its way of completing?

The worst part about this is I never recieved any type of warning.

When xp used to force reboot the dialog would pop up but the program you were using would never lose focuas and you could always prolong the shutdown by atleast 10 minutes by simple choosing the option in the dialog box.

I am up for starting a class action lawsuit. How dare microsoft charge a ridicalous price for there os and then treat you as iff you dont even own the computer that the os runs on.

my own mother wouldent dare turn of my computer without my permission, let alone turn it off when I'm sitting right in front of it working.

I know my spellling is horribly wrong and at times ?I may not make sense. thats just the type of rambling person MS can turn you into by screwing with your life and livley hood.

# June 3, 2010 3:38 AM

Matthew Aguilara said:

"I love the quote from one of the above posters - '"WU cannot protect you from all eventualities."'  It would seem it's woefully inadequate at protecting the user from itself."

Tim hardy. That statement is the equavilant of hitting a hole in one for the 100th consecutive time.

# June 3, 2010 3:45 AM

Bertrand Le Roy said:

@Matthew: while I totally understand you'd be upset (I was too) you obviously have no idea what a communist dictatorship is. Let's keep thing in proportion.

# June 3, 2010 4:07 AM

Mark Paquette said:

Everyone here who claims that its' the user's fault that their machine rebooted when they were unprepared are, apparently, confused as to the purpose of these machines. Me? I almost NEVER reboot - and when my PC reboots, so do all my virtual machines. Now ... a cool feature, would be if Microsoft would automatically start ALL open applications and pages within them (like open emails in Outlook) on restart - like IE is beginning to do.

# June 23, 2010 1:30 PM

Mark Paquette said:

I've said repeatedly in the past that applications should never steal focus - that's just crazy.

# June 23, 2010 4:44 PM

N. W. said:

Grr. This just happened to me, with no warning at all. Usually I get a tray notification but not this time! Lost about an hour of work (why doesn't make a shutdown call that allows you to save programs, like the actual 'shut down' command??)I thought Windows 7 had fixed this 'feature' of XP. And for those of you who blame the user, you obviously don't know what you're talking about. XP in particular overrides your Windows Update preferences after certain updates, making the process automatic again without your permission.

# August 4, 2010 4:49 PM

Jack Schueler said:

I have the "let me choose when to restart" option selected in Windows 7 but the darn thing reboots when it feels like. I reall enjoy those "Windows is installing updates - please wait" messages especially while I am in the middle of something important. I especially enjoy the last dying moments of all those apps putting up the "gosh you haven't saved your work" prompts as Windows Update reboots my system.

The "let me choose" option worked just fine for me under XP.

# October 29, 2010 8:57 PM

zuma06 said:

You stinkin wimps.  I agree that windows update is annoying.  so is wearing a seatbelt in a car and a helmet on a motorcycle.  and come to mention it that parachute is kind of heavy when you skydive.  do you ignore your check engine light too?  when you don't take time to apply updates and make backups you suffer.  your computer is a machine and machines need maintenence.  some more than others. and is your creativity so fragile that you can't allow 5 or 10 minutes to reboot?  and wait a second here, a WIKI page?  how pathetic.

by the way, if you hate your computer, try using paper and a pencil to write.

# November 29, 2010 3:31 PM