Microsoft's glasnost on interoperability means more bugs

But in the long run, say experts, it could bolster security for everyone

Microsoft's decision last week to let everyone snoop through its software secrets means vulnerabilities and exploits will almost certainly climb in the short term, security researchers said Monday.

But the move to open the communications protocols and APIs for Microsoft's newest and highest-profile products, including Windows Vista, Windows Server 2008, Office 2007 and others, should translate into better security for everyone in the long run, said those same researchers.

"The net [result] is that we'll see quite a few vulnerabilities over the short run, but over time, we'll gain security," said Andrew Storms, director of security operations at nCircle Inc. The bump in vulnerabilities and exploits that leverage the flaws, however, could be substantial. "It'll be a giant kind of hump in the curve," he warned.

And the hump could show up sooner rather than later. "In the end, it's going to be a good thing, but it will be a bit of a roller coaster ride. I wouldn't be surprised to see it start in eight weeks or so," Storms added.

On Thursday, Microsoft announced changes in how it deals with open-source developers and software rivals, pegging the new positions and initiatives as "interoperability principles." The first spelled out by CEO Steve Ballmer and other company executives, and the one that drew the most attention, was a promise to open its protocols and APIs to everyone's scrutiny.

To back up its talk, Microsoft immediately began posting more than 30,000 pages that documented the protocols and APIs of the Windows client and server software. Documentation for the other products will follow no later than June, said Bob Muglia, head of the company's server and tools division.

Storms and Tyler Reguly, a security research engineer at nCircle, see the newly revealed documentation as a mother lode for researchers of all stripes.

What they get out of mining the Microsoft protocols and APIs, said Reguly, "depends on the kind of researcher you're looking at." Criminal types, he continued, will be able to take advantage of anything they find almost immediately. But most researchers working for security vendors will have a tougher time. "They may not be able to integrate [what they find] into their products right away," he said.

Some of what's tucked into those 30,000 pages will also be new to all, or at least some, hackers. "Some protocols exist now almost in full form," thanks to countless hours of reverse-engineering, Reguly said. "But other protocols aren't publicly specced out. So this levels the playing field." Those who had previously puzzled out the inner workings of Microsoft Windows on their own will be joined by others who now have a "leg up." Translation: more hackers.

Other security professionals disagree. Alfred Huger, vice president of development in Symantec's security response group, figures the documentation won't make much difference. "In the short term, there will be an influx of bugs, yes," said Huger, "but the people who are finding [quality] vulnerabilities and writing exploits, they already have enough of this sorted out."

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Gregg Keizer

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