Windows automatically updating itself: Case closed?

It's time for the latest -- and possibly final -- installment of the seemingly never-ending saga of "Why is my copy of Windows automatically updating and rebooting itself?" Microsoft says users just don't realize that their machines are set to update, most likely due to an admin setting. So Microsoft considers this case closed. But is it? And should it be?

It's time for the latest -- and possibly final -- installment of the seemingly never-ending saga of "Why is my copy of Windows automatically updating and rebooting itself?"

Windows automatically updating itself: Case closed?
In the last episode, the Windows Update Product team stated on its blog on October 12 that neither Automatic Update (AU) nor the bunch of patches that Microsoft rolled out on October 9, Patch Tuesday, were responsible for reports from Windows users earlier this month that their machines were automatically updating without their approval. The Product Update team continued to investigate. At some point (I'm not sure exactly when, as the time stamp does not reflect the post update time/date) the team updated its blog again, suggesting a few possible causes for the reports by certain Windows users of their machines updating automatically. On the team's list of possible reasons that AU settings can be (re)set or changed:

  • "During the installation of Windows Vista, the user chooses one of the first two recommended options in the “Out of Box Experience” and elects to get updates automatically from Windows
  • "The user goes to the Windows Update Control Panel and changes the AU setting manually
  • "The user goes to Security Center in Windows Vista and changes the AU setting
  • "The user chooses to opt in to Microsoft Update from the Microsoft Update web site
  • "The user chooses to opt in to Microsoft Update during the installation or the first run experience of another Microsoft application such as Office 2007."
In short, Microsoft's explanation was that users were knowingly or unknowingly changing their own Automatic Update settings and complaining about the results. I went back and asked some of the many readers who complained in the comments on my blog post, as well as the additional ones who sent me e-mail, about both Vista and XP automatically updating even after they had indicated they did not want automatic updates to take effect automatically. I showed them Microsoft's explanation. To put it politely, many did not feel Microsoft's explanation was adequate. Here's one reader response from a user who said that his XP machine rebooted itself this month, despite his AU settings being set to off:
"I'm not buying their explanation. I -- for several years -- have always shut off Windows update. I don't want anything installed on my computer unless I know about it. If something is done on my computer, installations or whatever, I want to control it. I don't allow any software vendor to update my software unless I'm aware of it. This includes Sun, Firefox, Thunderbird and others. I'm a computer tech and am keenly aware of how software changes can have adverse effects on a computer. I especially don't trust Microsoft. Why and how Microsoft made changes to my computer very much concerns me and makes me more wary of MS than ever."
Another reader astutely replied that he thought that the users might be experiencing the problem noted my ZDNet blogging colleague David Berlind back in August. Berlind documented how Vista could force unwanted and immediate reboots on users. Microsoft's explanation, at that time, was that users running in non-admin mode might be subject (knowingly or unknowingly) to the whims of their administrators. Microsoft's explanation to Berlind:
"Because an administrative user had configured the machine to automatically stay up to date, the reboot is not postpone-able by a non-admin. Allowing a non-admin to override an admin’s wish is not the right default for security sake. This behavior is also controllable by policy to allow a non-admin user to interact with Windows Update. So yes, what [you] experienced is by design and justifiable as it does not allow a non-admin to go against the wishes of the administrative user. And again if running as a non-admin is his normal mode of operation, then there are policies which can be set to tweak behaviors more to his liking."

I went back to the spokesperson for the Update team and asked whether it might be possible that this same policy decision was what was causing so many users to report that Vista and XP were automatically updating their machines against their wishes right after Patch Tuesday this month. The spokeswoman forwarded me the same response sent to Berlind, noting that it applied to Vista and XP. The spokesperson said users who felt these settings were inappropriate should get their admins to change the policy setting in Windows Update so that a restart does not happen automatically after a scheduled install. (As Berlind noted back in August, changing this setting is not something many average users will be able to do easily.) Microsoft is pointing users to this TechNet article explaining how to stop their machines from patching themselves without their approval, as well as this piece, which is specific to managing Windows Software Update Services settings. There are still a number of unanswered questions, in my mind, regarding this matter. Why are reports of machines updating themselves automatically surfacing now, over the past several months, and not before now -- especially in the case of five-year-old Windows XP? Are we going to start seeing these kinds of complaints flood in every month right around the time of Patch Tuesday? And are there other reasons beyond those Microsoft has suggested as the causes of Windows machines automatically patching and updating themselves which might be at fault here (as the reader I quoted is suggesting)? Microsoft considers this Windows Update case closed. But is it? And should it be?