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To Fix Software Flaws, Microsoft Invites Attack
September 29, 2003
By STEVE LOHR
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 patch.
"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 one event.
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 unforeseen ways.
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 trouble.
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
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
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 for
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 single
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
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
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
"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
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 change."
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