Marketing By Security Research

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.

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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.

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