New Microsoft Security Service to Offer Timely Guidance

Redmond's new service is intended to provide feedback and security advisories between the monthly bulletins, as when gray hat hackers prematurely disclose information on software flaws.

Microsoft plans to unveil a new security advisories service next Tuesday as part of an aggressive long-term effort to revamp the way it reacts to publicly reported software vulnerabilities.

The pilot project, which is independent of the scheduled monthly security bulletins, represents a major shift in the way the Redmond, Wash.-based software maker communicates with customers when information on security flaws is published by gray hat hackers and private research outfits.

The new offering, dubbed Microsoft Security Advisories, gives engineers at the MSRC (Microsoft Security Research Center) an outlet for providing instant feedback, guidance and mitigations when researchers jump the gun and release vulnerability details before a patch is available.

It is meant as a bridge to provide information and guidance in between the time a flaw warning is released and a patch is ready for the monthly security bulletins.

The new service will not include patches but will instead contain a top-level summary detailing the issue being addressed and providing a list of FAQs and suggested steps to reduce risks.

Once issued, advisories can be revised as needed to reflect new information or guidance, and some may even evolve into security bulletins. In those cases, the advisory will be updated to point customers to the security bulletins for patching information.

The advisories will not carry severity ratings, but the look and feel will resemble the bulletins that are currently issued on the second Tuesday of every month.

The new service will also be used to handle software updates that provide "Defense in Depth" security enhancements or changes unrelated to security vulnerabilities and the notification of public exploit code or proof-of-concept code for a released update or vulnerability.

"This is a way for us to communicate security information to customers on issues that may not be classified as a vulnerability or require a security bulletin," said MSRC program manager Stephen Toulouse.

In an interview with Ziff Davis Internet News, Toulouse said the advisories will be issued "within one business day" of Microsoft Corp. becoming aware of an incident or issue. Each advisory will be accompanied with a unique Knowledge Base article number for reference to provide additional information about the changes.

In some cases, Toulouse said, the MSRC will use the advisories to provide information on hoaxes and other fake alerts that put users at risk of phishing attacks: "A security advisory might be appropriate to communicate to customers that its a hoax and warn them about possible attacks."

In the past, Microsoft has adopted a low-key approach to confirming potentially serious holes in its products, using carefully worded press releases to downplay—and sometimes disagree with researchers on—the severity of flaws.

However, the companys pleas for responsible disclosure by gray hat hackers have fallen on deaf ears and the publication of flaw warnings with exploit code continue to flood security mailing lists.

An early indication of Microsofts changing attitude came last month when Toulouse used the MSRC Weblog to confirm a critical flaw in fully patched Windows 2000 systems. It was a highly unusual move that included an open discussion on possible ways in which the bug could be exploited.

"Customers tell us that they want more prescriptive and timely guidance on security issues. We got tremendous feedback from the blog posting. They want us to tell them that were aware of things and to provide guidance in a formal way," Toulouse said.

While the scope of the advisories will deal primarily with Microsoft products, Toulouse said the long-term goal is to provide guidance on "any security issue that might impact customers."

He said the advisories will be updated any time new, helpful information emerges from the MSRCs investigations. "During the early stages of a security update, it might go through several revisions as our investigation continues and additional guidance is provided," Toulouse said.

The launch of the new program follows two embarrassing product upgrade hiccups that signaled a major disconnect between the MSRC and the product teams.

The first occurred last December when Microsoft sent out a "critical" Windows XP Service Pack 2 update to fix a serious flaw in the Windows Firewall utility but neglected to mention it in the monthly bulletins that shipped that same day.

/zimages/4/28571.gifRead more here about the recent fix to Windows Firewall in Windows XP SP2.

Redmond officials insisted it was an "unfortunate oversight" that the update was shipped without notice and described the firewall fix as a "configuration issue," which meant that it was not treated as a software vulnerability.

Insiders say that incident triggered the discussions which led to the setting up of the coming advisories service.

Earlier this year, the company was again criticized for the way it handled a spyware infection attack vector that used the DRM (digital rights management) download mechanism in the Windows Media Player.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read more about the slow progress of the Windows Media Player spyware fix.

It took the company a full three months to provide comprehensive protection for all WMP users.

Toulouse described those incidents as "unusual circumstances" which occurred when Microsofts internal coordination was weak.

"We can do things better. There are times when the back-end process internally doesnt cover everything. But we want to learn and fix those things."

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