By Dustin Volz 

WASHINGTON -- Microsoft Corp. released a patch to fix a software vulnerability in its Windows operating system that could allow hackers to breach or surveil targeted computer networks, after the National Security Agency detected the flaw.

U.S. government officials described the vulnerability in Windows 10 -- Microsoft's most popular operating system -- as especially severe and one that Microsoft customers should work to fix immediately by updating their systems. Both Microsoft and the NSA said they hadn't found evidence the flaw had been exploited for malicious purposes.

"We are recommending that network owners expedite the patch immediately, " Anne Neuberger, the chief of the NSA's newly established cybersecurity directorate, told reporters on Tuesday. The agency alerted Microsoft as soon as it discovered the bug, she said.

In a sign of how severe officials considered the flaw, the Department of Homeland Security issued an emergency directive on Tuesday instructing federal agencies to take a series of steps to apply patches to their systems immediately. DHS also said it would hold calls with private industry partners warning about the risks posed by the flaw, said Bryan Ware, a senior official at DHS's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

"A security update was released on January 14, 2020, and customers who have already applied the update, or have automatic updates enabled, are already protected," Jeff Jones, a Microsoft senior director, said in a statement. "As always, we encourage customers to install all security updates as soon as possible."

The flaw at issue involves a mistake in how Microsoft uses digital signatures to verify software as authentic, which helps block malware from being deployed on a computer. The error would potentially enable hackers to install powerful malware on systems undetected.

NSA hackers often uncover errors in major software that can be exploited for malicious use. The agency has long said it notifies vendors frequently of such flaws so they can be fixed, but it sometimes retains and weaponizes them for offensive use, such as to spy on a hostile foreign military's communications.

But the NSA has been criticized for not always alerting the private sector to serious vulnerabilities. For example, Microsoft publicly denounced the agency in 2017 after stolen NSA hacking tools that were leaked online contributed to a global cyberattack involving a Windows flaw.

In that instance, Microsoft President Brad Smith wrote a blog post criticizing the U.S. government for keeping the flaw secret for its own purposes, building a powerful cyber weapon and then losing control of it. Mr. Smith at the time likened the situation to "the U.S. military having some of its Tomahawk missiles stolen."

The NSA said at the time that it had worked with Microsoft to patch the problem after learning the hacking tools had been compromised.

Later that year, the Trump administration released a first-of-its-kind public road map outlining the administration's policies regarding major cybersecurity flaws identified -- often in popular consumer software -- by U.S. intelligence agencies. The document lays out guidelines for when the government would disclose the discovery of such flaws and when to keep them secret for possible use in future offensive actions.

The public document that outlined the Vulnerabilities Equities Process, or VEP, said that an annual report would be written "at the lowest classification level permissible and include, at a minimum, an executive summary written at an unclassified level" that may be provided to Congress.

Years later, however, no such information has been made public, and the lack of unclassified details has drawn frustration on Capitol Hill, people familiar with the matter said.

NSA's acknowledgment Tuesday that it found the Microsoft flaw and alerted the company was the first time the agency had done so publicly, Ms. Neuberger said. The development represented a philosophical shift at the NSA that has long sought to balance its dual missions of foreign intelligence and cybersecurity, she said.

"It's really the evolution of a mission," Ms. Neuberger said. "We recognize that no government can secure its most critical networks without the help of the private sector."

Write to Dustin Volz at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 14, 2020 21:27 ET (02:27 GMT)

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