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[ISN] To Fix Software Flaws, Microsoft Invites Attack
Forwarded from: William Knowles <wk@xxxxxxx>
By STEVE LOHR
September 29, 2003
Microsoft's Security Response Center in Redmond, Wash., is the
computing equivalent of a hospital emergency ward. When a problem
comes in the door the center's director, Kevin Kean, and his staff
must swiftly make an assessment: Is the security weakness detected in
a Microsoft software product only minor? Or is it possibly so serious
that, if exploited by a vandal's malicious code (as happened last
month with the Blaster worm) it might crash computers and networks
around the world?
If the threat appears grave, the problem goes immediately into the
center's emergency operating room, where it is attended to by a team
of Microsoft engineers, working nearly round-the-clock to analyze the
flawed code, anticipate paths of attack, devise a software patch to
fix the defect and alert millions of customers of the problem and the
"It's triage and emergency response - so it's a lot like an E.R. ward
in that sense," Mr. Kean observed last week.
The race to protect the computing patient has begun again.
On Sept. 10, after Mr. Kean's team completed another E.R. mission,
Microsoft issued an emergency warning of a critical vulnerability in
its Windows operating systems and released a patch - its 39th so far
this year. What particularly worries computer professionals about the
warning is that the security hole in Windows is the same kind of flaw,
in the same feature of the operating system, that was exploited in
August by the notorious Blaster worm.
Those who monitor Internet crises know that once Microsoft raises the
alarm and releases a patch, a curious race begins. Digital vandals -
those who write worms, viruses and other rogue programs - eagerly
download the patch and reverse-engineer, taking it apart to search for
clues on how to exploit the very Microsoft security hole the patch was
meant to cover.
Some portion of Microsoft customers, from corporations to home PC
users, takes the time to download the patch, but most do not.
Meanwhile, there is a scramble to write malicious code and spread it
across the Internet.
The Blaster worm was sighted on the Internet 25 days after Microsoft
warned of that security hole. The company issued the latest warning 19
days ago. So if recent history is a guide, Blaster 2 may be coming
soon to a computer near you.
The brand-name worms and viruses of the last couple of years -
Blaster, SoBig, Slammer, Code Red, Nimda, ILoveYou and others - are
simply the most virulent representatives of an alarming surge in
attacks by malicious programmers.
The CERT Coordination Center at Carnegie Mellon University, which
monitors rogue computer programs, reported 76,404 attack incidents in
the first half of this year, approaching the total of 82,094 for all
of last year. And the 2002 incident count was nearly four times the
total in 2000. If anything, the CERT statistics may understate the
problem, because the organization counts all related attacks as a
single incident. A worm or virus like Blaster or SoBig, a
self-replicating program that can infect millions of computers, is but
The security flaws Mr. Kean's team is scrambling to catch and patch
are part of the larger problem with software today. The programs that
people rely on for all manner of tasks - from writing reports and
sending e-mail, to monitoring factory floors and managing electric
power grids - are becoming increasingly large, complex and, all but
inevitably, filled with bugs. The problem is magnified by the fact
that most computers are now linked to the Internet, enabling programs
to travel around the globe and mingle with other programs in
Most software bugs are a result of small oversights by a programmer.
And most large software programs are combinations of newer code and
old code, accumulated over time, almost as if in sedimentary layers. A
programmer working years ago could not have foreseen the additional
complexity and the interaction of software programs in the Internet
era. Yet much of that old code lives on, sometimes causing unintended
Security holes, computer experts say, are a manifestation of the
fragile and often unreliable software foundation that underlies
today's economy. "These worms and virus attacks are just the visible
tip of a massive iceberg," said Peter G. Neumann, a computer scientist
at SRI International, a research firm.
The major rogue programs all exploit vulnerabilities in Microsoft
products, and Microsoft is the leading target of criticism by computer
security experts. Indeed, Microsoft must shoulder a lot of the
responsibility for the security woes suffered by its customers,
analysts say. But the security weaknesses in Microsoft products, it
seems, stem mainly from the company's success as the leader of the PC
era of computing.
The PC business model has been to push products out the door fast, add
features constantly and market each product version as a millennial
event. Microsoft perfected the model and attracted millions of
customers. But security experts note that the PC business model has
not placed much value on building secure, well-engineered software.
The other reason Microsoft is the white whale for most digital vandals
is that more than 90 percent of all desktop PC's run on the Windows
operating system software. And the company's Office package of
programs has more than 90 percent of the market for word processing,
spreadsheet and presentation software.
Other operating systems like Linux, Unix and Macintosh, experts say,
all have security vulnerabilities. "But they don't get the attention
and the attacks because, unlike Microsoft, the other technologies are
not deployed on 300 million computers," said Russ Cooper, a security
expert at TruSecure, a computer security company. "This is not just
The task of making software more reliable and secure will not be quick
or easy. But computer scientists and industry analysts say that the
goal is achievable, and that some encouraging steps have been taken.
Improvements, they note, will depend largely on changing attitudes in
the marketplace so that software makers have a greater incentive to
invest in building better software.
"By and large, vendors build what people are willing to pay for," said
Edward Lazowska, a professor of computer science at the University of
Washington. "People have historically been willing to pay for features
- not reliability or security."
There is evidence, though, that corporations and the federal
government are placing a greater emphasis on obtaining secure
software. Within the last two years, the government has pushed
security initiatives in its technology policy, especially in the
aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Recent moves by the government include placing greater emphasis during
the purchasing process on software design and reliability standards
like the Common Criteria and the National Security Telecommunications
and Information Systems Security Policy No. 11, a Pentagon directive
that went into effect 14 months ago.
Such standards now apply mainly to the Department of Defense and
national security agencies, but Congress is looking to extend similar
standards to other federal agencies. The federal government is the
world's largest buyer of information technology, spending nearly $60
billion a year.
"If the government made a serious commitment to buying better
software, it would change the industry," said Mary Ann Davidson, chief
security officer of Oracle, the big database software company.
Two weeks ago, the House Subcommittee on Technology, Information
Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census, which is under the
Committee on Government Reform, held a hearing on the impact of the
Pentagon's programs to link procurement to tighter security standards
Representative Adam H. Putnam, the Florida Republican who is chairman
of the subcommittee, said he saw great promise for adopting similar
standards for civilian agencies. "The government can leverage its
purchasing power," he said, "and can be a leader for the entire
industry in setting rules and standards of engineering behavior."
A decisive step toward changing market incentives would be to expand
product liability law to include software products. So far, software
companies have sidestepped liability suits partly by selling customers
licenses to use their programs, not own them, with a lengthy list of
caveats and disclaimers.
The industry has resisted any suggestion that software should be held
legally liable for bugs. The industry's argument is that software is a
highly complex product, which users tend to misuse or modify, so
trying to assign responsibility for a failure would be unfair to any
Whether the software industry can continue to operate beyond the reach
of product liability suits is uncertain.
A report last year by a panel of the National Academy of Sciences,
"Cybersecurity Today and Tomorrow: Pay Now or Pay Later," included the
recommendation that "policy makers should consider legislative
responses to the failure of existing incentives to cause the market to
respond adequately to the security challenge."
Professor Lazowska, a member of the panel who at times has advised
Microsoft, explained, "You could draw an analogy to auto safety, where
a set of government actions has caused automobiles to become far more
safe over the course of the past 35 years."
Technology is giving programmers tools to build more reliable
software. The Java programming language, created at Sun Microsystems,
and C#, developed later by Microsoft, are technologies for creating
"managed code," which sharply limits the damage that can be done by
errant lines of programming. "You have to design it so that bad things
don't happen when programmers make mistakes," said William Joy, the
former chief scientist at Sun.
At Microsoft, much more time is now being set aside in the design
cycle of products for security considerations, a mandate approved by
senior management this spring. "There is a shift from mainly an
emphasis on working features to an emphasis on trustworthy and secure
computing," said Steven B. Lipner, director of security engineering
strategy at Microsoft.
Some of the tougher security standards, Mr. Lipner said, have shown
measurable improvement in Windows Server 2003, which shipped earlier
this year. The number of security vulnerabilities detected so far is
half as many as at this stage after the release of Windows Server
2000, Mr. Lipner said.
Yet years of steady progress in the quality of software engineering
will be needed for big gains in security and reliability to become
apparent. And it starts with education, noted Shawn Hernan, a security
specialist at CERT. He makes a game of seeing how quickly he can find
security vulnerabilities in the programming examples used in college
textbooks. It rarely takes him more than few minutes.
"The textbook examples are riddled with vulnerabilities," Mr. Hernan
noted. "Computer science culture is based on, build it, get it working
and fix it later. We need a culture change away from the cowboy and
toward the engineer."
Even as his E.R. team scrambles to patch Microsoft's security holes,
Mr. Kean agreed. "It's not just Microsoft," he said. "The world will
commit itself to more secure computing. There will be a cultural
"Communications without intelligence is noise; Intelligence
without communications is irrelevant." Gen Alfred. M. Gray, USMC
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