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Experts: Microsoft security gets an 'F'

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates speaks to a meeting of Italian computer experts recently.
Microsoft chairman Bill Gates speaks to a meeting of Italian computer experts.

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CNN's Tom Mintier reports on the impact of the 'SQL Slammer' worm in South Korea, the world's most wired country. (January 27)
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SAN FRANCISCO, California (Reuters) -- Computer security experts say the recent "SQL Slammer" worm, the worst in more than a year, is evidence that Microsoft's year-old security push is not working.

"Trustworthy Computing is failing," Russ Cooper of TruSecure Corp. said of the Microsoft initiative. "I gave it a 'D-minus' at the beginning of the year, and now I'd give it an 'F."'

The worm, which exploited a known vulnerability in Microsoft's SQL Server database software, spread through network connections beginning January 25, crashing servers and clogging the Internet.

Public reminded of risks

It hit a year and one week after Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates sent a company-wide e-mail saying Microsoft would make boosting security of its software a top priority.

Microsoft placed responsibility on computer users who failed to install a patch that had been available since at least last June.

"The single largest message is: keep your system up to date with patches," Microsoft Chief Security Officer Scott Charney said.

But the philosophy of patching is fundamentally flawed and leaves people vulnerable, Cooper said. For example, Microsoft didn't follow its own advice as executives confirmed that an internal network was hit by the worm.

"Microsoft was completely hosed (from Slammer). It took them two days to get out from under it," said Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer of Counterpane Internet Security, a network monitoring service provider. "It's as hypocritical as you can get."

Fix could have nullified problems

"We should have done a better job" in protecting the company's own network, Mike Nash, corporate vice president of Microsoft's security business unit, said. "We understood some things customers were facing and it, in some ways, helped us. It was a learning course."

There was another misstep on Microsoft's part that illustrates the problems with patches, Cooper said.

In October Microsoft released a fix for a different SQL Server problem that if installed in the expected manner would have made patched systems vulnerable again, he said. "If I followed their advice I'd have been vulnerable."

Microsoft spokesman Rick Miller said administrators were given the option with the fix to install it so the patch was intact. He also said he knew of no customers who installed the fix and were still hit by the worm.

Implementing fix proves complex

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A program that makes copies of itself -- for example, from one disk drive to another, or by copying itself using e-mail or another transport mechanism. 

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But, most people installing the fix would not necessarily have known how to install it in a safe way, Cooper countered.

Microsoft released a service pack that would have fixed the problems the week before Slammer hit. But not only are there too many patches to keep up with, people are reluctant to install them for fear they will interfere with their systems.

Microsoft admits making a mistake with the SQL fix and has "egg on our face" over being hit by the worm, Miller said.

"What this demonstrates and what we readily acknowledge is the patch management process is too complex," he said. "Microsoft is committed to reorganizing our patch system and delivering high-quality patches in a streamlined way."

Demanding better products

Nash defended the Trustworthy Computing initiative, saying the company's security process and culture have changed. For instance, all Windows developers have received special security training, he said.

However, the fruits of that may not show up until future versions of products are released, said Richard M. Smith, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based computer security consultant. "I'd rather they focus on the problems we have today."

"The problem is the whole patch regime has lots and lots of problems," he said. "It would be much better if the software shipped from Microsoft with fewer problems to begin with."

The solution: install patches, along with firewalls and other security software and services, as well as demand better products from Microsoft, the experts said.

Thinking of switching

In the meantime, Schneier said he was thinking of switching from Windows to the Macintosh platform because of all the security issues. "My wife has a Mac and she doesn't worry about viruses, trojans, leaks..., " he said.

A Consumer Reports survey last year found that virus infection rates on Macs are half what they are on Windows, noted Smith. "Is that because Macs are safer? I think the answer is yeah."



Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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