Marketing By Security Research

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2007-03-01 Print this article Print

Opinion: The news that there are vulnerabilities in Windows Vista could only have surprised a fool. So just how troubling are Symantec's research papers?

Every time Microsoft releases "the most secure version of Windows yet," as they all have been so far, they set themselves up to look like suckers when the problems roll in. And of course theyre going to. Almost as common as Microsofts explanations about how much more secure Vista would be than earlier versions of Windows were their caveats that this didnt make it perfect, that no platform ever can be, and that they would address problems as they came up.

So theres no basic surprise in Symantecs reports that Vista is vulnerable to all manner of attack. But theres still good reason to eye the reports critically.

First theres the obvious point: Symantec makes the bulk of their living off of security problems in Windows systems. They have an interest in Vista being seen as insecure. So this research is also simple marketing. Theres not necessarily anything wrong with this if their points are valid.

One thing you have heard over and over again from Microsoft was that Vista would not eliminate the need for security software like anti-virus and HIPS (host intrusion prevention software). Indeed, they now make their own products in this space. Im sure they would have included this software in Vista itself if it wouldnt have triggered outrage from competitors like Symantec and legal actions to follow.

As to Symantecs specific findings, what really bothers me the most is what they didnt release, at least not to the general public. The papers lack details needed to confirm their testing and analysis. In many cases they didnt even really release enough details to see if the results made sense on their face. Were quoting Andrew Jaquith, Yankee Groups program manager for Security Research, as saying that "[t]he Symantec research on Vista is very well written and researched." Perhaps hes seen more details than I have.

To judge the severity, and even the quality of Symantecs claims, you must first take Symantec at their word that all the numbers in their papers are accurate. You must trust that the malware testing framework they created worked as they claimed.

I was most interested in the malware paper and most struck by the holes in the presentation. For instance, they say that a certain small number of the attacks survived a reboot; what did they do in order to survive it? Did they survive in a form that was malicious, or perhaps just in some harmless stub program, or does this just mean registry fragments?

In order to be responsible, they say, they left out details that could have drawn a roadmap for attackers, even though they say it is inevitable that attackers will get to the maps destination. They are willing to say things like "[m]alicious code can automate the unblock process by simply sending a message to the firewall pop-up dialog box via the SendMessage API call. It is unclear whether Microsoft accidentally or intentionally allowed access to this dialog box via the same set of privileges." Maybe they dont consider this a roadmap.

I also get annoyed when I hear Symantec officials say that "UAC isnt the panacea Microsoft said it was." Microsoft never used words like that. Im not impressed with logic that relies on setting up a straw man and then knocking it down.

And yet, perhaps its reasonable to assume Symantec basically did a good job and that its points are valid. As naked an interest as the company has in making Vista look as insecure as it can credibly claim, perhaps Symantec has at least as much credibility as Microsoft. My take on this is that you should read everything from both companies skeptically.

Both companies are essentially agreeing with each other on the big picture: Vista isnt perfectly secure and you need security products outside of the operating system to monitor it. Remember also that reports like this do help Microsoft to update Vista to make it more secure.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog. More from Larry Seltzer
Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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