Microsoft is investigating a bug in Windows Vista's built-in e-mail program that can be used by hackers to run malicious code on a PC.
Symantec's DeepSight network, has issued a warning about the vulnerability in Windows Mail, and confirmed that the bug was remote code exploitable. That means an attacker could introduce his or her own malware onto a compromised computer.
Windows Mail is the successor to Outlook Express, the entry-level e-mail application that has been bundled with the operating system since the Windows 95 edition.
The flaw is embarrassing for Microsoft, coming soon after an executive in its security technology unit boasted about the robustness of Vista, giving the new operating system an A-plus for security in its first 90 days of release.
By crafting an e-mail message with a link to a malicious file -- one hosted on a remote Internet server, say -- and duping the recipient to click on the link, an attacker could infect a Vista PC with software that steals identities or with a backdoor Trojan horse.
In some cases, all that's required is that the user clicks on the link, said Symantec. "An attacker can deliver an e-mail message containing a malicious link that references a local executable," the DeepSight alert read. "If the victim clicks on this link, the native program is executed with no further action required. For instance: An attacker could achieve the execution of the local file 'winrm.cmd.'"
If run, "winrm.cmd" -- the Windows Remote Management command-line tool -- would give an attacker complete access to a PC.
If the link points to a malicious file not on the PC, the user has one more chance to figure out the scam, added Symantec. "If the user follows [this] link, they are presented with a dialog box where they must click 'Yes' to open the file. Once the user clicks 'Yes,' the file opens or executes with the privileges of that user."
Microsoft's Security Response Centre (MSRC) team downplayed the potential risk. "Microsoft is not aware of any attacks attempting to use the reported vulnerability or of customer impact at this time," the MSRC said through a company spokeswoman today.
Both Symantec and Microsoft urged users not to click links in unsolicited e-mail, while the former also recommended that users disable HTML within Windows Mail.
As is its practice, Microsoft said it may issue an additional advisory, or patch the problem in a future -- but unspecified -- security update. The next scheduled patch release date for Microsoft products, including Vista, is 10 April.