Beta for Windows XP security goes to testers

True to its promise, Microsoft on Thursday delivered the first beta of Service Pack 2 for Windows XP.

The service pack -- a finished version of which is scheduled to ship in the middle of 2004 -- includes a number of updates designed to make the operating system more secure. The software was made available through the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN).

During a Webcast Tuesday, Mike Nash, Microsoft's corporate vice president for the security business unit, said the beta was not feature-complete but that he hoped it would generate enough feedback from corporate users and developers to help Microsoft clean up and finalize the code.

Microsoft officials are positioning this service pack as a representation of the company's commitment to make its software more secure following a number of noteworthy attacks over the past 12 months.

Key among the features in the service pack are an upgraded and renamed Windows Firewall, which is now turned on by default; safer Web browsing features including enhancements to Internet Explorer to block pop-ups and unintended downloads; memory protection to reduce buffer-overflow vulnerabilities; and safer e-mail and instant messaging through better protection against malicious attachments and Instant Messenger file transfers.

For corporate users, several of the features of the service pack can be centrally administered through Active Directory Group Policy, including the firewall and pop-up blocking.

Other networking enhancements include changes to Remote Procedure Call (RPC), which will now run with reduced privileges and not accept unauthenticated connections by default, and tighter control over permission policies so the Component Object Model can not be exploited for network attacks. Also, the Messenger Service, a network administration tool that has been used by spammers to send pop-up ads to users, will be turned off by default.

The service pack beta also includes enhancements to Automatic Update that will make it easier and faster to download critical updates from Windows Update, new security settings for Windows Media Player 9, a Bluetooth update to support more wireless products and a new wireless LAN client that makes it easier to connect Windows XP to wireless hotspots.

Given that the service pack will not be available for deployment for more than six months, Microsoft is recommending users make a few changes now to help protect themselves, such as turning on the firewall in XP and regularly checking for and installing critical software updates.

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John Fontana

Network World
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