The Last Great Security Crisis

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2007-02-14 Print this article Print

Opinion: Microsoft has done a good job of turning its products around so they can be run securely, but it has one big problem left—a problem that's going to be a bad one for years.

Microsoft has been steadily mitigating, if not eliminating, the major deficiencies in the security of its products. Its easy to forget the dismal security quality of the products Microsoft shipped not too long ago, although I would argue that such quality was the industry norm. Everyone has improved the security—or perhaps I should say "securability"—of their products, but nobody has improved as much as Microsoft. Its not too long ago that Microsoft finally abandoned the Win9x kernel, a platform that was completely non-securable and couldnt even be made stable for long periods of time. The versions of Microsoft Office from the 1990s suffered similar weaknesses of architecture that prevented those versions from being made secure.
Microsoft just matched its all-time high for monthly security fixes, issuing a dozen bulletins that aim to patch 20 holes in its products, including 14 critical issues in Windows, Office, IE and even its own anti-virus tools. Click here to read more.
It wasnt until Windows XP Service Pack 2 and Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1 that the platforms were no longer easy to hack. Clearly there was no premium placed on finding overflows and other weaknesses in code at Microsoft until that point. Products also came with default configuration choices that were designed to showcase new features, but were terrible choices from a security standpoint. The most infamous of these was turning IIS on by default on Windows 2000 Server, which exposed all of those servers to Code Red and similar worms. For advice on how to secure your network and applications, as well as the latest security news, visit Ziff Davis Internets Security IT Hub. But if you run the current generation of products and have your head screwed on right about security, you are at least as secure as with Microsofts products as with competitive products. UAC, despite some reasonable criticism, is generally considered a big step forward by security experts. Overflows are much rarer (although not unheard of), and defaults generally are restrictive. Consider this chart for a comparison of architectural design to facilitate security. And even though the company has begun to address it, Microsoft has one big problem that will take years to fix completely: the old Office file formats. You might have noticed, over the last year or so, a succession of code execution vulnerabilities in Office file formats, many accompanied by zero-day attacks. Ive read research, from Kaspersky I believe, to indicate that there is an inexhaustible supply of these, and that a fundamental change to fix the problem would cause more compatibility trouble than its worth. Next page: What to do about Office documents.

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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