BLACK HAT - Users still wary of Vista security

Microsoft stepped into the lion's den this week when it sent some of its top engineers to the Black Hat USA hacker conference in Las Vegas.

Their mission: to convince the toughest security audience in the world that Microsoft's upcoming Windows Vista will be more hacker- and malware-proof than any other operating system and that the company is committed to security.

The result: a mixed-bordering-on-positive reception from corporate security executives and security researchers. Many of them said they are impressed by Microsoft's stated commitment to security but are withholding judgment until Vista gets into the hands of corporate IT shops later this year.

"On the surface, it does seem like they've come around a corner and are committed to doing things right," said Rick Ebert, an information security officer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Ebert said he was impressed with some of the changes to Vista that Microsoft showed off at Black Hat, such as requiring programmers to add extra annotations to Vista's code, enabling debugging software to more easily locate potential vulnerabilities and encoding function pointers to make it more difficult for malware to cause damage.

On the other hand, Andre Gold, chief information security officer at Continental Airlines, was more skeptical that Microsoft can live up to its security promises for Vista.

"They sound good and look great, but my impression is that they are not technologically competitive enough to usurp the third-party software we use now," he said.

Ebert said he is most impressed by Microsoft's public push to convince users that it is serious about securing its products. "Eighty percent of security is dealing with the psychology of people and processes," he said. "The technical part is almost easy by comparison."

Andrew Cushman, Microsoft's director for security engineering, said a spate of viruses, such as Code Red and Slammer, that targeted and wreaked havoc on Microsoft software about four years ago was a wake-up call for the company.

"It's like going to the doctor and having him tell you, 'You're 100 pounds overweight. You've got diabetes. If you don't do something soon, you're going to die,' " Cushman said. "We didn't treat it like a New Year's resolution and stop going to the gym by February. We like going to the gym now. And we all want to ship a more secure product."

Vista is the first Microsoft product to follow Microsoft's Security Development Lifecycle (SDL) regimen from the start of its development, noted Cushman. He said SDL includes several steps, including penetration testing by a team of in-house Microsoft hackers and checking all old and third-party code in the operating system.

"If you think of basic security flaws as low-hanging fruit, then we've taken away all of the watermelons lying on the ground," Cushman said. "I've never seen any other company invest this much to prevent attacks against their software," said Dan Kaminsky, one of 20 security consultants hired by Microsoft to help tighten up Vista. "As soon as I walked in the door, I was handed a full guide documenting all of the threat models for each feature."

Kaminsky completed his work on the Vista project last month.

Kaminsky said he believes that Vista is now on par or better than operating systems such as Linux and Apple Computer's Mac OS X.

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