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"Security Requires Fundamentally New Thinking About Software," Says Gates

"Security Requires Fundamentally New Thinking About Software," Says Gates

Bill Gates's e-mail last week - "Microsoft Progress Report: Security" - began by noting that, while malicious code is nothing new, "only in the last few years have the Internet, high-speed connections and millions of new computing devices converged to create a truly global computing network in which a virus or worm can circle the world in a matter of minutes."

"Meanwhile," Gates continued, "criminal hackers have become more sophisticated, creating and distributing digital epidemics like Slammer, Blaster, Sobig and Mydoom that spread almost instantaneously, threatening the potential of technology to advance business productivity, commerce and communication."

His e-mail then goes offer some insights into what he describes as "Microsoft's significant investments in four areas of security," namely: 

  • Isolation and Resiliency
  • Updating
  • Quality
  • Authentication and Access Control

So far as Isolation and Resiliency goes, Gates pointed out that "central to our security efforts is preventing malicious code from being able to exploit a vulnerability by isolating such code, providing more effective control over what computer processes can talk to or work with, and making systems more resilient so they are able to identify and stop suspicious or bad behavior in its tracks."

On the Updating front, Gates noted that software updates have until now been the primary way that customers protect against security vulnerabilities:

"Although the evolving nature of threats requires a broader, multi-pronged response, Microsoft is continuing to make significant upgrades to the quality of our updates and associated processes, and building more advanced tools to help IT administrators optimize their infrastructure for security."

"We are also incorporating the ability to automatically check the status of crucial security functionality such as firewall, automatic update and anti-virus," Gates continued. "A new Security Center feature in the Windows XP Control Panel will tell a customer whether key security capabilities are turned on and up to date. When a problem is detected, they will receive a notification and recommended actions to help them become more secure."

After a few general words about Quality ("As we've said before, Microsoft is strongly committed to using state-of-the-art engineering practices, standards and processes in the creation of our software. We have undertaken a rigorous 'engineering excellence' initiative so that our engineers understand and use best practices in software design, development, testing and release"), Gates rattled off a number of statistics intended to demonstrate the progress that Microsoft has been making recently:

"The security development processes we instituted prior to releasing Windows Server 2003 last year are a prime example of where this effort is showing results that benefit customers. The number of 'critical' or 'important' security bulletins issued for Windows Server 2003, compared to Windows 2000 Server, dropped from 40 to 9 in the first 320 days each product was on the market. Similarly, for SQL Server 2000, there were 3 bulletins issued in the 15 months after release of Service Pack 3, compared to 13 bulletins in the 15 months prior to its release. With Exchange 2000 SP3, there was just 1 bulletin in the 21 months after its release, compared to 7 bulletins in the 21 months prior."

Addressing Authentication and Access Control, Gates detailed Microsoft's progress on: Passwords ("The Windows Server 2003 family has a new feature that checks the complexity of the password for the Administrator account during setup. If the password is blank or does not meet complexity requirements, a dialog box warns of the dangers of not using a strong password. We also are expanding our support for strong, two-factor authentication mechanisms through partnerships with companies like RSA Security, Inc. and VeriSign, Inc."); Smartcards: ("Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP also support smart cards, credit-card-sized devices that securely store certificates, public and private keys, passwords, and other types of personal information. Logging on to a network with a smart card provides a strong form of authentication because it uses cryptography-based identification and proof of possession of the private key held on the smartcard when authenticating a user to a network; in other words, something you have and something you know."); Public Key Infrastructure (PKI): ("Windows Server 2003 includes features to help organizations implement a public key infrastructure, including certificates and associated services and templates."): and Biometric ID Cards ("Farther out, the tamper-resistant Biometric ID Card system will provide an innovative, simple and affordable solution for providing cryptographically secure photo-ID cards using a unique combination of public key cryptography, compression and barcode technologies.")

He also mentioned IPSec:

"IPsec: Another important component of a comprehensive defense-in-depth information protection strategy, IPsec eliminates many threats by mutually authenticating computers and restricting incoming network traffic based on that authentication. In addition, it provides for digitally signing traffic to ensure integrity, and encrypting traffic to provide privacy. Microsoft's IPsec implementation - in use in our own corporate network - is completely standards-compliant and will interoperate with all other compliant IPsec implementations, including those that support network address translation."

Gates also mentioned that Microsoft was also working with law enforcement on a global basis to deter hackers from software sabotage. "Last November," he noted, "Microsoft established the Anti-Virus Rewards Program, which offers cash rewards for information provided to the FBI or Secret Service that results in the arrest and conviction of those responsible for unleashing viruses and worms."


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Most Recent Comments
jonadab 04/04/04 11:39:57 AM EDT

Some of what Gates says is right. Much of
the bits about isolation and resiliency are dead on the money: having the
firewall on by default is a start, but if I understand correctly what he''s
saying (which is hard, because the wording is brief and nontechnical; it
was obviously not written for a technically-inclined audience), Microsoft
intends to actually *fix* Outlook. Not "patch" it to stop a particular
exploit, but actually fix the root problem.

He also says some stuff that''s good to hear despite not really constituting
security -- e.g., popup blocking, and not loading remote content in email.

He also talks about taking measures at the system level to mitigate the risk
of buffer overruns, but I can''t tell from what he says whether what they''re
doing there will be helpful or a placebo. This is where the CPU NX stuff
comes in, and I''m a little over my head there; I understand the idea, but
I don''t think I grok all of the implications.

This is actually a good article. Not perfect, but good.

khendron 04/04/04 11:38:25 AM EDT

I received that on my W2K computer at work.

It took me quite a while to convince myself that it was not spam and safe to open. This, I think, shows that Microsoft has a long long way to go.

shadowbearer 04/04/04 11:35:15 AM EDT

I still fail to understand why Microsoft didn''t wake up after Melissa.

I didn''t get nailed - I didn''t use IE/OE - but we were cleaning Melissa off of systems for months on a FT basis; and even 5 years afterward we''d still see Melissa infections once or twice a month (oh, what fun, and Melissa wasn''t even the worse - the Klez variants later on kept our phones ringing 24/7 - job security, natch :)

That was so damned long ago! Y''know, it''s been TWO FRICCIN YEARS since they announced the ''security inititiave'' and the last year has been (arguably) the WORSE year in virus propogation among MS systems - and it''s been XP! and (semi/somewhat/sometimes if it doesn''t break it) updated versions of IIS!

Security. MS. Bah. As to SP2, when it''s been out and installed on a lot of systems for 6 months, and their fixes are working, I''ll believe it. Not until then. Probably not even then, given the number of base vuln''s that MS hasn''t yet fixed and that have been around for years.

(I''ve told the 14 customers (side jobs) that I''ll be installing SP2 for that I WILL NOT guarantee it''ll be vulnerability free. For the most part they understand that. I won''t take any contracts where they don''t, in writing. I was a wintech for 7 years; read into that what you want. )

MS. Security. Bah. I''ll be in the thick this next year - corporate just installed our new WinXP based POS systems, all connected to the internet - firewalled to the hilt (hmph...) - we''ll see.

JohnnyR 04/04/04 11:32:39 AM EDT

Microsoft has realized that people want to know nothing about how their machines work, they just want them to work. That''s why they''re now working on protecting the ignorant user, rather than bothering with attempting to educate them.

For these users, it''s better to put the governor on the engine, the automated seat belt, and the airbags rather than trying to teach them to use a turn signal when they change lanes.

msimm 04/04/04 11:30:24 AM EDT

Microsoft may be getting it together with regards to security. They did a pretty good job of stability with 2000, but backslid on XP.