Privacy and Information Security | University of Illinois

Updates And Patches

What Are Updates?

Software updates, occasionally referred to as patches, are released for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the patch will upgrade a piece of software to the latest version with new features in the software. Sometimes an update will improve an application's stability. And sometimes an update is issued to fix a bug or security hole within the program. It is this last type of update is the most important when it comes to computer security.

Why Patch At All?

Security researchers have shown that installing system and software updates is the best defense against the most common viruses and malware online, particularly for computers running Windows. Software makers often release updates to address specific security threats that have come to their attention. By downloading and installing the system and software updates, you patch the vulnerabilities that virus writers rely on to infect your computer.

Use A Supported Operating System

Just because your old computer is still running doesn't mean that you're going to continue to receive updates. Both Apple and Microsoft stop providing updates for older operating systems. For example, Microsoft no longer provides updates for Windows XP, and Apple does not provide updates for early versions of OS X.

If the creator is no longer providing updates for a particular operating system, then that operating system becomes more dangerous every day you continue to use it. If a new vulnerability emerges, an update to remove the vulnerability may never be released. Virus writers know this and use it to their advantage, often preying on computers that are not just behind on a few updates, but computers still running an unsupported operating system.

photo by pongoman

Therefore, it is important that you are running a maintained operating system, one that is still receiving updates. The CITES Help Desk supports current operating systems, so if you'd like to double check if your operating system is up to date, simply visit Maintained Operating Systems page.

Operating System Updates

Both Windows and OS X deliver regular updates that require you to take little or no action in order to install them. Most times, Windows and OS X will pop up a message saying that there are updates available. At that point all you have to do is click a few times to install the update, and in some cases you'll need to restart your computer. It is a fairly painless process.

If you don't want to wait for the scheduled update to pop up, you can always check for updates on your own.

On a Mac, simply select "Software Update..." under the Apple menu in the upper left of the screen, and Software Update will automatically check if you have the latest patches and download any new ones that may be available.

On a Windows computer, run Windows Update and follow the instructions for installing any of the updates that may appear.

Software and Application Updates

Apple and Microsoft to fortify their operating systems with patches, but certain pieces of software also need to be updated. In fact, some applications and software, such as Adobe Flash, Adobe Acrobat, and Microsoft Office, are just as important to keep up-to-date as the operating system. When these programs release updates, make sure you install them right away.

You should also check for updates right away if you open an old application for the first time in a long time. Sometimes applications only look for updates, including crucial security updates, when they are running. If you haven't used a particular program in a long time, there's a chance you'll have at least a few software updates that need to be installed before using the program.

If you are using a Windows computer, you can use a program called Secunia PSI to help check if any programs that you use are behind on updates. To get a copy of Secunia PSI, please visit the Secunia PSI download page.