New alerts have analysts doubting MS security

A string of new security alerts from software maker Microsoft Corp. this week has prominent industry analysts and security experts predicting that the company's goal of making its software secure may remain elusive.

In January, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates outlined a new "Trustworthy Computing Initiative," promising to make security a top priority in Microsoft's software development -- trumping even functionality. Microsoft had long been criticized within the industry for software development practices that often favored functionality and convenience over security.

Despite Gates' announcement, however, the steady stream of security alerts from the Redmond, Washington-based company continues, reaching 57 so far this year, according to Microsoft's own count.

Since Wednesday, Microsoft has posted four security alerts concerning products ranging from the company's core Windows operating system to a software development kit (SDK) used to integrate Windows applications into the UNIX operating system.

Among those alerts was a warning rated 'critical' by Microsoft concerning the Windows Help feature, which provides assistance to users with questions about the operating system or specific applications. It was discovered that a flaw in an ActiveX component used by Windows HTML Help could allow a remote attacker to assume the role of a user on a Windows machine.

Another posting issued a patch for the company's SQL Server product, including fixes for four newly discovered vulnerabilities.

The company's continuing woes on the security front have industry analysts wondering aloud whether Microsoft will be able to fulfill the promise of trustworthy computing anytime soon.

Despite its good intentions, experts say, the company must still struggle with a stable of large, complicated software products and the continuing demand for new features in those products.

"Microsoft has two major issues to deal with," according to Rich Mogull, research director at Gartner Inc.'s Gartner G2.

"One is a cultural change. Innovation always took precedence over other factors at Microsoft -- getting products out quickly," Mogull said. "The other issue is that (Microsoft) has a massive code base to deal with. They have hundreds of products on the market and millions of lines of code that they produced (prior to the Trustworthy Computing Initiative)."

According to Mogull, Gartner is cautioning its customers about continuing security problems in Microsoft's products, despite the vendor's high profile emphasis on security.

Alan Paller, director of the SysAdmin, Audit, Networking and Security (SANS) Institute agreed, and offered another possible explanation for the high number of security flaws in Microsoft's products: the comparatively young age of the products.

"We've seen that the number of (security) vulnerabilities in software applications is related to two factors: the number of lines of code and the newness of the product," said Paller.

"Apache isn't better than (Microsoft's) Internet Information Server, it's just older. Older and smaller, and that means fewer new bugs," said Paller.

What is needed, says Mogull, is a transformation of the company, along the lines of the transformation that took place in the mid 1990s, when Microsoft shifted from being a desktop- to an Internet-focused business.

"Microsoft showed strong leadership before getting on board with the Internet, but this is an even bigger change. The Internet was about missing an opportunity to innovate, whereas with security it's about changing the face of the products that are out there. You can't develop as quickly, you can't release products with all the features turned on, and you have to be more responsive to security."

While Paller gives Microsoft high marks for the company's new focus on security, he's skeptical that Microsoft will be able to turn the corner on security vulnerabilities anytime soon.

"Microsoft is doing a better job than anybody except (Red Hat Inc.) at automating updates and kicking their programmers (to think about security), but they're also continuing to produce more lines of code and newer things. In five years, Microsoft's products will still have more vulnerabilities than other products."

Another needed change is for Microsoft's customers -- and those of other software vendors -- to start taking security flaws seriously, Mogull said.

"What we need is for the market to push back. We need to have businesses exert market forces and hold vendors liable for products," said Mogull.

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Paul Roberts

Computerworld
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