Gates Misses the Mark, and the Point, on Security

Bill Gates wants us to believe security is Microsoft’s new No. 1 priority. He wants us to believe they have the users’ best interests at heart.

I, personally, want to believe the moon is made of green cheese. The problem with both of these situations is I know too much for either to ever happen.

Until Microsoft announces a major effort to rearchitect the source code for the Windows operating system, everything he says about security should fall on deaf ears.

Windows machines account for somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of all computers on the Internet (for safety’s sake, we’ll put those numbers in the U.S.). Windows’ No. 1 selling point is ease-of-use for the end user. Well, that, and it’s cute, too.

From the beginning, the emphasis has not been on security.

How can I make such a bold statement? Two words: Buffer Overflow.

In the very first class I took in programming (those many years ago), we were berated class after class about proper bounds checking to prevent buffer overflows. What this means in simple terms is that every time my program asked the user for input, it had better check to make sure the input fit in the place I reserved for it. If I asked for a ”Y/N” and I got a ”yes” or a ”no”, those extra characters had to go somewhere and I had better be prepared for them.

Buffer overflows are just the beginning of security flaws written into the Windows operating system.

Gates states that the new IE 7.0 will fix ”most security flaws” in Internet Explorer. That’s great, but it will only be available to WindowsXP Service Pack 2 users. What? If you’re running Windows 2000, that’s just too darn bad. Security isn’t for you.

But that’s kind of OK, because it really isn’t for the XP SP2 crowd, either.

Why is that? Service Pack 2 is a package of patches, updates, and fixes all rolled into one large executable. It’s also the size of a small operating system (about 40Mb). And it doesn’t fix everything or we wouldn’t currently be experiencing the revival of the MyDoom virus on networks around the world.

According to Microsoft, there are more than 70 security patches rolled into Service Pack 2. This doesn’t include the ones that are listed as base operating system patches, IE patches, RPC patches and ”other”, many of which involve that little thing known as the Buffer Overflow, which ”could allow arbitrary code execution”.

My favorite patch in Service Pack 2 is listed as Windows XP and Windows XP Service Pack 1 (SP1) Kernel Rollup Hotfix Package. Do you want to know what this fixes? It fixes a Buffer Overflow in Service Pack 1.

Yah, it’s all about the security.

The week before the recent RSA Conference in San Francisco, Microsoft announced 14 new vulnerabilities in Windows XP. Since the first of the year, there have been more than 20 vulnerabilities found in Windows, and these are just the ones being tracked by the SANS Critical Vulnerability Assessment group.

In 2001, when XP was released, it was held up as a new paradigm in operating systems, built to withstand the foibles of the older DOS-based OS. But Service Pack 1 came out in late 2002, the patch to the patch was released in May 2003 and Service Pack 2 was released in November of 2004.

It’s clear they haven’t gotten it worked out yet. But they are going to continue to throw patches and hotfixes at the problem rather than resolve the underlying weakness in the source code.

To top it all off, there are free operating systems on the Internet that are smaller than the latest Service Pack. Yes. They are complete operating systems that will run on your PC, and that are smaller than Microsoft’s latest patch rollup.

There also are free browsers that do a much, much better job of preventing the installation of subversive code without your knowledge. They also block all those annoying popup ads, which are the source of much spyware. Why isn’t everyone bolting for a more secure, better managed operating system? They don’t have the Windows-like simple interface and plug-n-play abilities. In some cases, they aren’t even cute.

But what about free browsers? Why wait for the latest and greatest Internet Explorer to come out this summer? Take a look at Firefox and see what you think for yourself.

And we can’t forget that buffer overflows are just one example of vulnerabilities.

Windows users are under threat from privilege elevation exploits, denial-of-service attacks, spyware and malware, which are probably the most insidious of all vulnerabilities.

At the recent RSA conference, Gates said security is a challenging area. ”New threats are emerging all the time… but we’re working to mitigate those problems,” he added.

But the question remains — What is being done about preventing the threat in the first place?

If you don’t build a house made of glass, every rock-throwing little kid won’t be a threat.

One argument that I’ve heard from various sources is that Microsoft is a victim of it’s own popularity. Because it is the predominant operating system in use, the bad guys target it for attack because the victim pool is so large.

My response is phrased in a simple proverb I learned in my childhood — ”To whom much is given, much shall be required.”

Microsoft has the money and the resources, and it has an obligation to the people who swear by Windows to do it right, and do it right the first time. Gates wants more market share. He wants the space shuttle to run Windows (And to be honest, it probably already DOES run Windows on some systems. Isn’t that a scary thought?) But he never acknowledges the need to complete a top down/bottom up overhaul of the existing code base.

If I had the money Gates does, I could write an operating system that incorporates security, does everything Windows does for the user, and more.

It’s never been about security for Microsoft and I don’t think it is now.

Linda LeBlanc, who served as a gunnery sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps., now is a network security analyst at MIT. She also does security consulting for Web-based businesses.

This article was first published on on March 7.