What to Do About

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

Office Documents"> The only reasonable approach for Microsoft to take is to create a new, improved file format, and it has done just that with Office 2007. The new files are zipped XML files (although, ironically, the link is to a .DOC file). Of course its possible, perhaps even likely, that they have their own vulnerabilities, but these will have been created in an era when people care about secure development Unfortunately, there are a lot of .DOC and .XLS files out there in the world. What to do? At the same time Microsoft would obviously like for everyone to upgrade to Office 2007, but moving users to the new formats is important to the company, even at the cost of making old versions tolerable for a few more years. Thus, it released the Office Compatibility Pack for Word, Excel and PowerPoint 2007 File Formats. This allows Office XP and Office 2003 to open Office 2007 documents and for Office 2000 to convert them.
This is just about all Microsoft could do, at least in the big picture. Its hard to push users off of a file format thats so popular, even among other companies products. But the company has to do what it can, because indications are that the vulnerabilities will keep coming and Microsoft will have to patch them and a continuing crisis will characterize the next couple of years.
One common argument—Ive made it myself—is that we need to rely on anti-virus to detect Office files with vulnerability exploits in them. AV programs are scanning the file anyway and they have an understanding of the file formats in order to look for malware written in them, so perhaps they should find the exploits. They do try, but how well do they do? Andreas Marx of AV-Test, as reported in PC-Welt, tested AV protection against known (patched) and new (zero-day, unpatched) MS Office exploits (DOC, XLS, PPT and MDB). The article is in German, but its pretty easy to read: The table shows the name of the product, the number detected, the detection percentage, the number missed and the percentage missed. Click here to read the call of the U.S. cyber-security czar. I have to say the results are not good enough. Andreas argues that this shows that Microsoft needs to patch more quickly, and of course the faster it patches the better, but I think what it shows is how deep the hole we are in is. Microsoft cant patch these holes fast enough. It can only throw the old formats overboard and sail as far and as fast as it can. Check out eWEEK.coms Security Center for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at eWEEKs Security Watch blog.

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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