IDG News Service
September 22, 2006
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA -- Code Red, Nimda and Blaster. These
high-profile worms, which exploited flaws in Microsoft Windows and other
applications, made Microsoft the butt of security jokes and forced the
company to reexamine its approach to developing secure software.
"Throughout Microsoft, we thought Windows 2000 was a very solid,
reliable operating system, perfect for deployment in the enterprise,"
said Ian Hellen, a security program manager at Microsoft's Windows
Security Engineering Team. "Those tiny pieces of code were real wake-up
calls, saying Windows 2000 isn't there yet. It's just not designed to
cope with these kinds of threats."
That was then. With the commercial release of Vista just months away,
Microsoft's efforts to improve security are now showing results, though
much remains to be done by the company, said security experts attending
the Hack In The Box Security Conference (HITB) here this week.
"Microsoft has done a left-hand turn in its business and said, 'Right,
we've got to start building secure applications,'" said Mark Curphey,
vice president of professional services at McAfee's Foundstone division.
"They've implemented a very rigorous process across their organization
and now they're starting to see the benefits of that."
The progress that Microsoft has made can be seen in recent versions of
software, such as Microsoft Internet Information Services (IIS) 6, which
has had one high-risk vulnerability uncovered, Curphey said.
"They've done a lot better," said Bruce Schneier, the chief technology
officer of Counterpane Internet Security.
Curphey and others credit Microsoft's Security Development Lifecycle
(SDL) software-development process with reducing the number of design
and coding errors that lead to security vulnerabilities. "We spent a
long time trying to reorganize our whole development process so that all
of Microsoft's products, particularly the Windows operating system, is
reoriented to have security engineering at its core," Hellen said.
To some degree, Windows XP Service Pack 2 and Windows Server 2003
demonstrate how SDL has helped Microsoft improve the security of its
products. "But it's really only in Windows Vista that we've been able to
implement this in a comprehensive way," Hellen said, adding there is
room for further improvement.
Vista Still Needs Help
One security improvement that has yet to be made to Windows Vista is a
defense against Blue Pill, a prototype technology that uses hardware
virtualization to install undetectable malware on a computer running the
Blue Pill, developed by Polish researcher Joanna Rutkowska, was first
demonstrated using the second beta release of Vista. However, the latest
pre-production release of Vista, called RC1, does not include defenses
against Blue Pill, Rutkowska said, adding she was "surprised" by the
Blue Pill does not exploit any bugs in Vista, but Rutkowska recommended
Microsoft disable paging of kernel memory in Vista, which would prevent
Blue Pill from accessing the operating-system kernel and executing code.
In response, Microsoft executives attending HITB said the company
continues work on improving security in Vista, while making no specific
promise that changes will be made to prevent Blue Pill attacks in the
production version of Vista.
Microsoft gets credit for improving the overall security of its
products, but more can be done. However, users must first decide if the
company's progress in this area is sufficient. "If we think it's enough,
we're done. If we don't, than we have to do more," Schneier said.
"They're going to fix the problem to the limit of their economic
One option is to make vendors like Microsoft liable for the economic
risks of the security vulnerablilities that users face--something that
is unlikely to happen given the current political environment, Schneier
said. "If we want more security, we have to raise the cost of not having
it," he said.
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