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Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security

What security push?

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[tags]Vista, Windows, security,flaws,Microsoft[/tags]

Update: additions added 4/19 and 4/24, at the end.

Back in 2002, Microsoft performed a “security standdown” that Bill Gates publicly stated cost the company over $100 million.  That extreme measure was taken because of numerous security flaws popping up in Microsoft products, steadily chipping away at MS’s reputation, customer safety, and internal resources.  (I was told by one MS staffer that response to major security flaws often cost close to $1 million each for staff time, product changes, customer response, etc.  I don’t know if that is true, but the reality certainly was/is a substantial number.)

Without a doubt, people inside Microsoft took the issue seriously.  They put all their personnel through a security course, invested heavily in new testing technologies, and even went so far as to convene an advisory board of outside experts (the TCAAB)—including some who have not always been favorably disposed towards MS security efforts.  Security of the Microsoft code base suddenly became a Very Big Deal.

Fast forward 5 years: When Vista was released a few months ago, we saw lots of announcements that it was the most secure version of Windows ever, but that metric was not otherwise qualified; a cynic might comment that such an achievement would not be difficult.  The user population has become habituated to the monthly release of security patches for existing products, with the occasional emergency patch.  Bundling all the patches together undoubtedly helps reduce the overhead in producing them, but also serves to obscure how many different flaws are contained inside each patch set.  The number of flaws maybe hasn’t really decreased all that much from years ago.

Meanwhile, reports from inside MS indicate that there was no comprehensive testing of personnel to see how the security training worked and no follow-on training.  The code base for new products has continued to grow, thus opening new possibilities for flaws and misconfiguration.  The academic advisory board may still exist, but I can’t find a recent mention of it on the Microsoft web pages, and some of the people I know who were on it (myself included) were dismissed over a year ago.  The external research program at MSR that connected with academic institutions doing information security research seems to have largely evaporated—the WWW page for the effort lists John Spencer as contact, and he retired from Microsoft last year.  The upcoming Microsoft Research Faculty Summit has 9 research tracks, and none of them are in security.

Microsoft seems to project the attitude that they have solved the security problem.

If that’s so, why are we still seeing significant security flaws appear that not only affect their old software, but their new software written under the new, extra special security regime, such as Vista and Longhorn?  Examples such as the ANI flaw and the recent DNS flaw are both glaring examples of major problems that shouldn’t have been in the current code: the ANI flaw is very similar to a years-old flaw that was already known inside Microsoft, and the DNS flaw is another buffer overflow!!  There are even reports that there may be dozens (or hundreds) of patches awaiting distribution for Vista.

Undoubtedly, the $100 million spent back in 2002 was worth something—the code quality has definitely improved.  There is greater awareness inside Microsoft about security and privacy issues.  I also know for a fact that there are a lot of bright, talented and very motivated people inside Microsoft who care about these issues.  But questions remain: did Microsoft get its money’s worth?  Did it invest wisely and if so, why are we still seeing so many (and so many silly) security flaws?  Why does it seem that security is no longer a priority?  What does that portend for Vista, Longhorn, and Office 2007?  (And if you read the “standdown” article, one wonders also about Mr. Nash’s posterior. grin )

I have great respect for many of the things Microsoft has done, and admiration for many of the people who work there.  I simply wish they had some upper management who would realize that security (and privacy) are ongoing process needs, not one-time problems to overcome with a “campaign.”

What do you think?

[posted with ecto]

Update 4/19: The TCAAB does still continue to exist, apparently, but with a greater focus on privacy issues than security.  I do not know who the current members might be.

Update 4/24: I have heard (informally) from someone inside Microsoft in informal response to this post.  He pointed out several issues that I think are valid and deserve airing here;

  1. Security training of personnel is on-going.  It still is unclear to me whether they are employing good educational methods, including follow-up testing, to optimize their instruction.
  2. The TCABB does indeed continue (and was meeting when I made the original post!).  It has undergone some changes since it was announced, but is largely the same as when it was formed.  What they are doing, and what effect they are having (if any), is unclear.
  3. Microsoft’s patch process is much smoother now, and bundled patches are easier to apply than lots of individual ones.  (However, there are still a lot of patches for things that shouldn’t be in the code.)
  4. The loss of outreach to academia by MSR does not imply they aren’t still doing research in security issues.

Many of my questions still remain unanswered, including Mr. Nash’s condition….

Comments

Posted by Jim Horning
on Wednesday, April 18, 2007 at 03:01 PM

I think Microsoft is driven by economics.  Either
1) they don’t think the total cost (including brand image and user dissatisfaction) is anywhere near $1 million per bug, or
2) the people setting the priorities and doing the budgeting think that <i>surely</i> almost all of the bugs have been found and fixed by now.

I’m reminded of Harlan Mills’ famous maxim: “The only way to be sure you’ve found the last bug is never to find the first one.”

Posted by Sid
on Wednesday, April 18, 2007 at 03:35 PM

You can toss me in the pile of cynics, though I will concede (through discussion with peers and reading this and that) that Microsoft has put an enormous effort into making Vista more secure than XP.

My cynicism comes into play when I think about the scaling issue: Vista is surely more feature-rich and complex than XP was, so of course more effort must be placed on security, even to just maintain the previous standard. 

I don’t think we should yet begin judging the success of Vista security efforts as a whole—- it is still relatively new and not as widely adopted as XP.  Given a bit of time and exposure to the scary Internet, we’ll see how Vista fares in the real world, and then can decide if Microsoft’s approach was a step in the right direction.

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