Microsoft has placed security as one of the top selling points for the Windows Vista OS, due out at the end of next year. But exactly how much more secure Vista will be than its predecessors is a point of concern here at the Microsoft IT Forum 2005 in Barcelona.
Vista will face an increasingly malicious online playing field, where it will be carefully probed by virus writers and hackers, said industry insiders here.
Banks haven't been able to completely stop bank robbers, said Amy Roberts, Microsoft's director of the Security Business and Technology Unit, but many of the new features in Vista will reduce the risk and ability for machines -- and their users -- to fall victim.
"I do think it will offer improved protection," Roberts said Wednesday during an interview at the Microsoft IT Forum 2005 in Barcelona.
And some security experts appear to agree that it has improved. Marcus Murray, senior security advisor for TrueSec, said he had seen Vista's security features under a nondisclosure agreement. While he did not elaborate on specifics, he said security was better, but warned that nothing is invulnerable.
A few of those security features have already been incorporated into Windows XP Service Pack 2, including data-execution protection that uses both software and hardware capabilities to deflect damage from buffer-overflow attacks, Roberts said. Antispyware protection under the renamed product Windows Defender will be incorporated into Vista, through Internet Explorer 7.
In addition, a user-account protection feature in Vista allows for greater control of the access a person has to perform certain functions, Robert said.
Murray commented on Vista during a session titled "Why I can hack your Windows network in a day." Earlier in the session, Murray showed how it was possible to perform several hacks by downloading a few free GUI (graphical user interface) tools. One of those he demonstrated was a Trojan horse creation and management tool.
Running on a host computer after delivery via e-mail, the Trojan allows for complete control of the computer and installation of a range of other malicious tools that allow other actions such as keystroke logging, Murray showed. After the Trojan was installed, a window popped up in the lower right-hand corner on Murray's computer that said "A new victim is available."
"Almost anybody today can be a hacker," he said.
When asked if the free hacking tool would work with Windows Vista, he said it is possible it would but in any case "there will be new tools."
One of out of 10 people react to a phishing e-mail, Murray said, and more than 70 percent of computers are running some sort of malware, or harmful software. Phishing is a technique used to trick people into responding to a fraudulent e-mail asking for personal information, such as an e-mail that asks for a user name or password to an online banking site
The problem is that antivirus technology is reactive, and it takes someone to notice a virus or malware for it to be reported and counteracted, Murray said. But many Trojans have small footprints and are hard to detect.
In a recent case where three Dutch men have been accused of illegally controlling 1.5 million computers, those machines were downloading new versions of their malware as antivirus programs caught up with previous ones, he said.
Virus and malware creators are more interested now in financial gain, rather than in the past when the goal of the "bad guys" was to show their intelligence, Roberts said. "That has changed the notion of what we are trying to protect against," she said.
"It's pretty scary," said Jonathan Noble, who runs Windows PC clients as a computing officer for the University of Newcastle at Newcastle upon Tyne in England, of the presentation. "It still means you have an awful lot of potential problems."