The Partly Line

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2006-01-09 Print this article Print

So we can say, independent of any issues related to specific patches, that it can be done quickly. What about the specifics? I could offer some speculation about this particular issue and why it was a relatively simple one that could be disposed of quickly: The fix was obvious, in that it simply disabled support for a feature that turned out to be inherently dangerous.
Once the decision was made to disable a feature the rest was easy.
Also, Microsoft had the advantage of WMF being a largely obsolete format, and this being a relatively obscure feature of it. Even if Microsoft assumed that it had to completely break the feature, it could just declare that the implications were worth living with. Normally, one would think, this would be an ominous decision that would ripple up and down through management at the company, but if that happened in this case, it too happened quickly. (Another interesting question is how this flaw could have escaped notice in previous security audits of the Windows code. Someone should be made to explain themselves.) Also, the position Microsoft takes in its security bulletin that the vulnerability is critical for Windows XP, 2003 and 2000, but not for Windows 9x, is inconsistent and probably disingenuous. The bulletin states, "Although Windows 98, Windows 98 Second Edition, and Windows Millennium Edition do contain the affected component, the vulnerability is not critical because an exploitable attack vector has not been identified that would yield a Critical severity rating for these versions." In all fairness, the same might be said about Windows 2000. It too has no Picture and Fax Viewer, the default component that handled WMF files in Windows XP and Server 2003. But all versions of Windows are exploitable through vulnerable applications; I was able to exploit on Windows 2000 with Microsoft Word (the Insert Picture command) and Im sure the behavior would be identical on Windows 98. Why the exception for Windows 2000? Click here to read about why Microsoft discourages use of third-party patches for the WMF vulnerability. Probably because its a mainstream product with a massive degree of corporate adoption, and Microsoft is trying to get all customers to move away from the earlier versions. So the vulnerability in Windows 98 may be more critical for customers than for Microsoft. And this is the real secret to the situation: Microsoft listens to its large customers and takes their concerns seriously. Im sure that the Fortune [insert small number] was on the phone to Microsoft demanding prompt action on the WMF issue, and whaddayaknow, prompt action happened. And large customer demands are the only thing that will normalize a more acceptable window of action by Microsoft for credible vulnerability reports. The days of claiming that eight months is a reasonable test and development period are over. Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. He can be reached at 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.

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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