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MS Security VP Mike Nash Replies

Posted by Roblimo on Thu Jan 26, '06 10:00 AM
from the we're-doing-the-best-we-can-now-matter-what-others-say dept.
You posted a lot of great questions for Mike Nash last week, and he put a lot of time into answering them. As promised, his answers were not laundered by PR people, which is all too common with "executive" interviews with people from any company. Still, he boosts Microsoft, as you'd expect, since he's a VP there. And obviously, going along with that, he says he likes Microsoft products better than he likes competing ones. But this is still a great look into the way Microsoft views security problems with their products, and what the company is trying to do about them.
What has changed?
by suso

Besides the same old PR scripted answers that corporations like to give in order to obscure or downplay what is really going on. What assurance can you give us that Microsoft is more focused on security and that Vista is going to be any different from the previous incarnations of Windows? What proof can you give us? Information like "We have a new team doing X" or "our process for reviewing changes has gone to X" are helpful pieces of information to answer this question. What else have you seen in the way MS is developing Vista that is different from how you've developed previous products?

Nash: We have been thinking about security at Microsoft for some time. I would say it started back when we decided to do Windows NT back in the early 90s. There has been a big change in the way we approach security from a quality point of view that started in much more depth when Bill wrote the Trustworthy Computing Memo back in 2002.

What happened then was that we decided we were going to get much more focused on security since it was such a huge issue for customers. Remember, we were right on the heels of Code Red and Nimda and we had to do something. For the .NET Framework 1.0, Visual Studio 2002, ASP .NET and for Windows Server 2003, it started with a security push where we took the teams offline relatively late in the product cycle, taught the teams what it meant to write secure code, had them do threat models and code reviews, etc.

What is interesting is how much of this had to do with educating our engineers on what it means to write secure code and changing the culture. I will give you examples of both.

Two or three years ago, we had a vulnerability in Windows Media Player where an attacker could send out a piece of media content with a malformed copyright field and because of a flaw in the code that parsed the copyright, the attacker could over run a buffer and run arbitrary code on the machine. So the question was, should the developer of the Windows Media Player have thought about that kind of attack and take steps to prevent it? Remember, we want the people writing the Media Player to make the world's best media player. The answer has to be YES! While you could have a tiger team work around the organization reviewing all of the code in every product that we ship, that doesn't scale. You could never have enough dedicated security expertise; if they made changes they might break something since they really couldn't understand the details of the code they are making more secure. This works for final reviews, but final review needs to be like the guard rails on the side of the road -- they are a great last resort, but we need better drivers! So we trained everyone. Key thing here is that we also learn new things over time (better tools, new threat vectors, and new scenarios) so the training has to be continuously updated.

Culture is a huge issue as well. Microsoft is a company that is very focused on technology, very focused on business, and very focused on the competition. Getting groups to put security high in their list of priorities was a super hard thing to change at Microsoft. Four years ago, I used to have to have frequent conversations with teams who would tell me that they couldn't go through the security review process because they had competitive pressures or had made a commitment to partners to ship at a certain time. Today, generally, people get it. It's now clear to us that security is a competitive and business priority. While I still see escalations from people who want exceptions, the numbers are pretty low. A big change from four years ago is that when I say no, I get great support from above me in the organization.

A key thing that came out of our experience with Blaster in 2003 was something called the Security Development Lifecycle (SDL). Really the SDL is the formalization of work we were doing previously. Remember Blaster exploited a vulnerability in Windows Server 2003 -- a product that had been through a security push (it also affected Windows XP). When we did the post mortem on how the vulnerability happened, what we realized was that while there were huge improvements in the quality of our code between Windows 2000 and Windows Server 2003, there was still more work to do. In particular, we needed to have: 1) a documented, repeatable process, 2) internal education so that everyone involved in the product release process knew what to do, and 3) a checkpoint in the release process to make sure that this process was followed.

The key things about the SDL is that we basically have to update it every six months because the threat landscape changes, the scenarios we support grow and we learn more.

For Windows Vista, the key things that will make it great are a combination of the most rigorous execution of the SDL to date -- more training, newer tools, threat modeling, more comprehensive review of file parsers, review of code to identify and remove use of banned (risky) APIs and a whole lot of penetration testing.

As a part of this, a lot of work is also being done to change the default configuration to make it safer and more secure. We have done a lot of work to make the system work well for standard users (so that not everyone has to be an admin), but for users who still need or want to be logged on as an admin on their system we make it clear to them when they are about to do something that requires administrator privilege. The user can configure their system to either ask them if they want to escalate, or ask for a password when the system tries to elevate them. We have also gone through all of the system services in Vista to see which ones have admin privilege, verify which ones really need it, and for the ones that don't, remove it.

For Windows Vista we enhanced the engineering process with some new checkpoints in the engineering cycle. One such checkpoint requires that every team developing a system service in Vista go through the process of using a new Vista least-privilege operational model. A team of internal experts had to sign-off on the plan for each service, and in a significant number of cases, teams avoided creating a service altogether when an alternate approach was possible.

While quality is an important approach to improving security and safety, it's just one part of it. There are also some key features we have added to Windows Vista to make it safer and more secure. For example, we have taken the anti-spyware technology that we acquired from GIANT Company Software, improved it and integrated it into the operating system in something called Windows Defender. While the anti-malware technology will also be available to users who have licensed copies of Windows 2000 and Windows XP, for Vista the integration is pretty slick, which makes it much easier for customers to be protected. For Vista, we also improved the firewall built into the operating system. It's bi-directional and is designed to work well with IPSec.

Given the changing landscape on the Internet, and the continued focus on the Windows platform, sadly I know there will be vulnerabilities and exploits that target Windows Vista. Invariably, as we make it much harder for people to find and exploit vulnerabilities in Windows Vista, I am certain of two things: 1) the number and severity of both vulnerabilities and exploits on Windows Vista will be reduced, making the switch to Vista compelling if ONLY for security reasons, and 2) we will continue to focus on security even after we ship Windows Vista so that the work that comes after Vista will be even better.

Security/user friendly tradeoff
by qwijibo

Is there a general policy within Microsoft to help product teams make consistent security decisions? There are frequently issues where the decision has to be made between being more secure or more user friendly.

For example, file and printer sharing defaulting to off prevents people from unknowingly sharing their resources, but requires non-technical users who do wish to set up a small network to know more about the process than in previous versions.

Nash: This is an old issue that we have made quite a bit of progress on. At Microsoft we had a long history of turning things on by default in the spirit of making user's lives easier and showing off our key features. I have to admit, that in my past I have actually been part of the problem. As the director of product management back in 1995, I was part of the team that drove the decision to turn our web server, Internet Information Server (IIS), on by default in Windows NT Server 4.0.

What the events of the last 5-10 years have taught us (or at least taught me) is that the more you have turned on, the more attack surface area the system has and therefore the more vulnerable it is. If you assume near perfect quality or that there is no one out there trying to attack you, it might even be an ok decision. But since you can't, we need to be more selective about what things we turn on by default.

Consider the case of Code Red. That worm attacked a vulnerability in the ISAPI filter of the index server of IIS. Let's assume for a minute that you don't know or care what the ISAPI filter of the Index Server of IIS is. Even in that case it turns out that if you turned off the Index Server in Windows Server 2000 SP3, that ISAPI filter was still installed. So while you might have thought that shutting down the index service makes you less vulnerable, it turned out that you were not.

So coming out of the whole Code Red experience, we created the Trustworthy Computing Initiative (TwC). One of the key principles of TwC that drives the Security Development Lifecycle is the principle of Secure by Design, Secure by Default and Secure in Deployment (or what we call SD3).

The principle of Secure by Default says that unless most users are using a feature, it should be turned off by default. What we have also learned along the way (and my Code Red example shows this) is that you can't just look at the user visible features, but also need to look at the underlying services. So if the customer feature is off by default (or turned off by the user) then the underlying components that support them should also be turned off when the high level feature isn't using the service.

But you make a great point about complexity. If we turn more things off by default, we need to make it easier for users to turn things on when they want to use them. For example, in Windows Server 2003 SP1, we added something called the Security Configuration Wizard that is designed to help users configure their systems with as much turned off as necessary. The benefit of turning things off by default is two fold: 1) it protects the individual system from being attacked if a vulnerability exists in the feature because the feature is turned off by default, and 2) it also protects the populations of systems because the worm or virus can't assume that the feature is on and therefore the systems aren't broadly exploitable through the vulnerability.

I should note that while we usually think about what features to turn off, Secure by Default is also about what features to turn on. A great example of this is the firewall in Windows XP. Back when we first shipped Windows XP in 2001, we included a firewall, but turned it off by default. Why? Because many of the influential users we spoke to said that they had a firewall and didn't want ours turned on. They also said that they had too many apps that would be negatively affected by having a firewall on by default. That was a good answer for the small percentage of users who had their own firewall, but for most customers it was a mistake. In hindsight, consider that if we had the firewall turned on between October 2001 and August 2004 (when we shipped Windows XP SP2 with the firewall on by default) that Slammer and Blaster might not have been an issue for Windows XP customers to the extent it was. And with Zotob, this was also the case. By the way, for customers who have a third party firewall, or for OEMs that install a third party firewall, they can always turn ours off.

The Windows Security Center, first introduced in Windows XP SP2, is designed to make it easy for end-users to verify that the right security features are turned on and configured properly. We're going to make it even better in Windows Vista.

This is as much about culture (reminding people of the goal of safety and security being job #1) as it is about process (making sure that the default state of the feature is considered in the context of what most people need).

Top priority for security in 2006
by Anonymous Coward

Given that security is a major topic on IT manager's minds these days with security flaws and patches practically making front page news of some publications, What do you feel is going to be the main focus for security in 2006 for yourself and the industry as a whole?

Nash: The answer for me and for Microsoft is simple. The main focus for security in 2006 is nailing the security quality and features for Windows Vista and Windows Longhorn Server. Don't get me wrong, this doesn't mean that we don't care about the security of older products or products besides Windows, but given that Windows Vista and Windows Longhorn Server are going to be the most significant releases of Windows in the last five years or so, we know that they are going to be used broadly by a large set of users for sometime--so getting it right is critical.

As I noted above, we have the opportunity to apply the best practices in secure design, threat models, code quality, default configuration and penetration testing and more rigor than we have ever had in the past. We have also added some new features like a bi-directional firewall and Windows Defender to make the system safer and more secure. As the project becomes feature complete, we must verify that the system is secure and addresses the issues that are raised in testing.

There is also real work here for the industry as well. Some of this has to do with making sure that applications and security products work with Windows Vista. New applications need to work well for users who have standard (non-admin) user accounts. At the same time, we need to make sure that security products work well on Windows Vista. For example, no one is going to move to Windows Vista unless they have great anti-virus software that works well on it.

My other goal for the industry is that third party applications and internally developed applications adopt our Security Development Lifecycle. Here's why: As we improve the quality of Windows, we're making it harder for people to find vulnerabilities and therefore harder to write exploits. As a result, there will be a natural tendency for security researchers and exploit writers to move up stack. We are already seeing this. As we have learned, the only approach that scales here starts with a well defined process, taught through broad education and verified prior to shipping to drive accountability. The good news here is that we have documented our process pretty clearly and made it easy to learn. Checkout to learn more about it.

For customers, the top priority has to be defining and executing their security plan. I spend a ton of time with customers, many of whom have done a threat analysis of their environment and built a security plan. I am still surprised by the number of customers who have a plan but have not had a chance to execute it. The good news is that most have executed their security plan -- so the top goal for them is to reassess their environment and make sure that they are responding to new threats. We've also created a great set of tools to help customers (Developers, IT Administrators and End-Users) be more secure on our platform.

While we want customers to be evaluating Windows Vista, it's super important that business customers in particular, who have NOT yet deployed Windows XP SP2, think seriously about deploying it. While a large number of enterprise customers have deployed Windows XP SP2, many still haven't. While I get that not every desktop will get upgraded to Windows XP SP2 between now and Windows Vista, I think it's critical that laptops and Internet facing desktops move to SP2.

Outside influences on security
by kalpol

Has open-source software such as Linux influenced the way you think about security in Windows, and if so, how?

Nash: The open source approach has influenced the way I think about security, but I am not sure it's in the way you would have expected. The theory that more eyes makes software more secure is a premise that drove some anti-Microsoft PR back in late 2002, which caused my team and I to respond. My first step was to dig in and try to understand the open source process to see what I was missing.

I learned a few things. The first thing I learned was that while having lots of people look at code sometimes found issues, none of this mattered if there wasn't a good process to close issues. I spent some time reading Linux websites that contained reviews of Linux code. I was surprised by two things: 1) the lack of consistency in the way that software was reviewed, and 2) the lack of accountability to verify that things that were found actually got resolved. Then Blaster hit 10 months later in 2003 and I realized that like Linux we could also suffer from a lack of closure. So we invented the Secure Development Lifecycle, of which the key feature was that it drove consistency and accountability. Here is the background story . . . .

After Blaster happened, I wanted to find out who was responsible for the buffer overflow that was exploited and hold the individual accountable. But once we looked into it, we realized that there was not a documented a process that the developer was supposed to follow that would have prevented the mistake, nor did we have a set of procedures for our developers to verify that a secure development process was utilized. The Security Development Lifecycle is basically the institutionalization of these very things: a documented repeatable process, clear education and accountability. What I learned here was that because we have the ability to establish processes and reinforce them at every level of management that we had an opportunity to make our software do something that the open source approach couldn't replicate.

The second thing I learned about security from the open source approach was about serviceability. One of the things that proponents of the open source approach always talk about is the fact that with open source you don't have to wait for an official patch, since you can download the code, recompile it and create your own fix. I can't imagine this working at scale, since most users could never do this. For the customers who can manage to knit their own patches, the problem is that some distributions sometime update a component with new fixes but they don't always include some of the fixes that more sophisticated users may have done on their own. This effectively undoes the home built patch.

The key learning for me was four-fold. First, it is super important that we have our updates available on all supported versions and all supported languages at the same time. Second, we need to do whatever we can to make sure that our updates are available when vulnerabilities are publicly disclosed. Responsible disclosure helps us a lot since people can confidentially report things to us in return for acknowledgement when we do issue the update. Third, we must have great quality when we do issue the updates. If our updates break things, then people won't trust them. In my mind, the definition of our products is the product that we ship PLUS the latest service pack PLUS any security updates we shipped after the latest service pack. If we don't test our security updates in a broad set of scenarios, then we are likely to break something.

Finally (fourth), it's important that we have tools to simplify the process of deploying updates since it reduces the barriers to deploying the updates and increasing the likelihood that customers are up to date. That is why we have invested in tools to make patch deployment much more straightforward like Windows Update, Microsoft Update, Windows Server Update Services and Systems Management Server.

What is the basic approach to Microsoft security?
by kickabear

Does Microsoft lean more towards rigidly enforced coding standards as a way to prevent exploitable bugs, or does the company focus more on brute-force bug detection during testing?

I know the easy answer is to say "both, of course" but a 50/50 split is unlikely. So, does testing take the backseat, or does the code?

Nash: My short answer is actually a third choice, which is better design. This starts with really understanding the security threat that a feature might introduce to the system and making sure that the design of the feature or component is designed to reduce the risk. Then we go to implementation which, as you note, is partially about better standards which must be taught through education, but must be reinforced with tools to verify code quality wherever possible.

We also do spend a lot of time using a combination of ethical penetration and interface testing. While bug detection is critical, it really is a last resort -- in some sense the guard rails on the road to safe driving on the road of software engineering. Just like driving your car on a windy road, safety starts with better driver (in this case developer) education.

All of that said, if there is one thing I have learned in the last four years in this job is that there are no silver bullets in security. Instead we make progress through a combination of investments.

Why add DRM? Also, why not decouple IE?
by Bob_Villa

Why are you adding in DRM controls to Vista that regular users are not going to want? It may come in handy for corporations wanting to control their documents, but I can't see how regular users would knowingly want a product that restricts their access to their documents or files.

Also, I think you could dramatically improve security by decoupling Internet Explorer from Windows. Have it be a separate program similar to Opera, FireFox, Safari, etc... Is there really a valid reason that Windows Explorer has to be driven by Internet

Nash: First, a point of clarification. I assume in this case, you are talking about the Rights Management Services (RMS) client that is now integrated into Windows Vista and not the DRM technology that is used to protect media content that has been built into Windows for some time. In the case of RMS, you are right that corporations see value in protecting their information and controlling the usage of that information. A key piece of feedback we got from customers using the current version of RMS was that setting it up was hard, so we integrated the RMS client into Windows Vista. That said, some customers may not use it. You would only use it if an RMS-enabled application such as Office was installed and a user opted in to use that feature in Office.

We also believe that over time, that regular users will also want to protect their own information. For example in the future, home users may want to protect and control the usage of information such as lists of their friends, photos, banking account information and other personal data.

In terms of your question around Internet Explorer, there are two real aspects of this: 1) the platform implications of having IE in Windows, and 2) the user experiences that are possible with having IE in Windows.

From a platform point of view, decoupling IE would break a lot of things. There are many applications that depend on IE for rendering HTML and for accessing the Internet. Think about email applications, Internet-aware clients like the AOL Explorer or even Microsoft Money that use IE to render HTML in the application. Not only would this break a lot of applications, but it would also put a huge burden on developers who would now have to write their own HTML rendering capability.

From an experience point of view, a key goal for Windows has been to integrate the local experience and the remote (Internet) experience from a user interface perspective. Integrating the web browser into the operating system was a key part of delivering that experience for customers. The area where we can do much better is making sure that the kinds of things that can be done by a remote site is less than what can be done locally--this is especially true for sites that you don't know or don't trust. A key enhancement to the browser for Windows Vista is something called Protected Mode IE. The browser starts with minimal access to system and user resources. For example, when a remote site is accessed, the site will not have privileges to install software, copy files to the user's Startup folder, or hijack the settings for the browser's homepage or search provider. Of course users always can choose to use other browsers and even have other browsers be set as the default on the machine.

I do believe that the progress we are making with IE in Windows Vista will address many of the concerns people have with IE security today.

Do you ever spend time with "average users"?
by Caspian

Time and again, I've seen average end-users-- grandmothers, "soccer mom" types, businessmen-- whose computers are positively clogged to the gills with spyware, viruses, and other sorts of malware, the overwhelming majority of which they were infected with via the exploitation of security flaws in Microsoft software. I'm often tasked with disinfecting their computers.

How often do you (and the members of your team) spend time with average end-users-- not just in large corporate settings but in small businesses and (just as importantly) in real-world home settings? I believe that if you would spend time with Joe Average and see just how badly his computer's performance (not to mention his personal privacy and the integrity of his data) is suffering from the exploitation of certain bugs and design decisions (e.g. the fact that most end-users run with Administrator privileges) in Microsoft software, it would cause a significant shift in Microsoft's security strategy.

No matter how often $LATEST_WINDOWS_VERSION is touted as more secure than its predecessors, I still keep getting called to average homes to remove countless items of spyware which infected Windows systems via holes (and/or poor design decisions, e.g. the handling of ActiveX controls and the abilities they can have to alter files on the system) in Internet Explorer, and to this day (despite the wide use of antivirus software) most end-user systems I examine do contain at least a few viruses (which entered the system via Microsoft Outlook).

What are you doing to secure Joe Average's PC? Do you have any interaction with average end-users? And if not, why not?

Nash: I personally spend a ton of time with end-users -- often friends and family, but also people that I meet through my job at Microsoft. I have a wife, three brothers, a sister, five sisters-in-law, three brothers-in-law, two parents, one mother-in-law, a father-in-law, one uncle, two aunts, one living grandmother, three kids (although they are all too young to use a PC), five nephews and seven nieces, so I get a lot of calls from family members asking for tech support. It's actually amazing how much their feedback has driven decisions in our security strategy. I will give you two examples:

Right after Blaster happened, my uncle Ken called me to see how I was doing with everything going on with the event. My uncle is a little strange (although he is my only uncle, so I really don't have anything to compare him to) and he sometimes calls me "nephew." He said, "Nephew, what should I do about this latest Blaster thing?" I told him that he should turn on Automatic Updates and turn on his firewall. When he asked me how to do it, I talked him through the dialog boxes and we got him setup. In this process, I learned two important things. The first was that that the process of making these changes was a pain in the neck. The second was that when we really should have changed the default configuration for Windows Update.

When we shipped Windows XP Gold in 2001, we introduced Windows Update for the first time. At the time there were two options that the user had to choose from when they installed Windows: 1) tell me when updates are available, or 2) download the updates and tell me that they are ready to install (the default). When we shipped Windows XP SP1 about a year later, we added a third option which was to download the updates and install them. The problem was that when we added this third option (the best choice for most people), we left the second option (download and tell me) as the default. I am not sure why we did this, but my guess is that no one thought it through. So what did my experience with uncle Ken influence? A few things. First, we created a webpage at that included a little program that turned on your firewall, and helped you turn on the third option for Automatic Updates. We also changed the default setting for Automatic Updates in Windows XP SP2.

My second story is about my grandmother, Estelle (I am 42 years old and not too proud to tell you that I call her Nanny). Nanny got her first PC in 1992 soon after I came to Microsoft. In 1995 she got her second PC -- I was excited about Windows 95 and so was she. In late 2001, I sent a mail to all of my family members telling them that I would only help them with their PC if they were running Windows XP, so my grandmother ran out and bought an XP machine.

In February of 2004 I was down visiting Nanny in Florida. I was on my way home from a business trip, so I was only there for about a day. When I got to her house she fed me breakfast, looked at the latest pictures of her great-grandsons and then said to me that she needed some help with her PC. When I powered the thing on, it was clear that something was wrong. The machine was very slow and you could see the icons on her desk being drawn pixel by pixel.

It turns out that her machine was massively infected by spyware. She had gotten some mail offering her $10 to take an online survey which she had taken seven times. Without realizing it, each time she completed the survey and tried to claim her $10, she had agreed to the terms of a software license and downloaded spyware on her machine. She had effectively sold her $900 PC for 70 bucks. It took me about three hours to get her machine running again. I went back about a month later and installed Windows XP SP2 (beta at the time) on her machine, but what I realized was that we had a much bigger problem with spyware.

With that visit came the vision for Microsoft's anti-spyware strategy and our focus on delivering an anti-spyware solution.

Today, I travel a bit more prepared for situations like the one I encountered at Nanny's house. I have 512MB memory stick with me in my briefcase that includes a copy of Service Pack 2 for Windows XP, the latest beta of Windows AntiSpyware and the current month's release of the Malicious Software Removal Tool.

Windows updates to unregistered machines?
by Spy der Mann

Dear Microsoft Security VP:

I know a person who doesn't have his copy of Windows registered. His PC got infested by spyware, so my deduction is that his computer was probably used to send SPAM, spread viruses and whatnot. When He called me for tech support, I told him to download the Microsoft Anti-Spyware from Windows update, but his answer was that it required a registered copy.

My question is this: If Windows updates make the Internet SAFER from hackers, spyware and viruses, why limit them to registered copies of Windows? (IMHO this is analogous to not giving the vaccine of the bird flu to illegal aliens)

What do you plan to do about this?

Nash: This is a great question and one that we struggled with as we established the policy. First, I should clarity one thing. While the Windows AntiSpyware offering is only available to users of licensed copies of Windows, we do make our high priority security updates available to unlicensed users of Windows, primarily in order to prevent unlicensed Windows systems from posing a threat to the Internet if they get infected. Although, we do remind unlicensed users of Windows to get genuine.

At the end of the day, Microsoft's first commitment is to protect our paying customers. We made a decision last January to make Windows AntiSpyware technology available to licensed Windows customers at no charge. When we first acquired GIANT Company Software, the plan was to make scanning for spyware a free service on, but charge for the technology that blocks spyware. The theory was that frequent scanning was a good substitute for people who didn't want to pay for the blocking capabilities. Within a few weeks of running the beta of the anti-spyware technology we realized that this premise wasn't valid since while it's easy to detect and remove the primary spyware infection, spyware often brings with it more spyware and detecting and removing the secondary and tertiary infections was much harder. So we made the decision to include this blocking capability in all licensed copies of Windows.

So the question is, why not protect non-licensed users from spyware? The short answer is that spyware primarily affects the machine that has the infection. Part of the value of owning a licensed copy of Windows is that you are protected from spyware. If you don't pay for your copy of Windows, you aren't protected.

It's hard for me to feel too bad for the person who you know who doesn't have a licensed copy of Windows and is infected. They are using stolen software. I have heard the arguments that Microsoft has lots of money and shouldn't care if people are using our software illegally. I don't buy it (no pun intended). You could make this argument in many other cases, but we don't tolerate people eating a meal at a restaurant and then not paying, or stealing a candy bar from a convenience store or taking a TV from an electronics store. In this case, your acquaintance wants the free meal, but can't understand why we don't throw in dessert.

If your acquaintance installed their own pirated copy of Windows, I recommend that they get a valid copy and install it. If they got their pirated copy of Windows preinstalled on a PC, then they should report the company that sold them their PC and we will use the information to get the vendor to make things right, and will get your acquaintance a valid license in return for the information.

MSFT employee here
by Anonymous Coward

Hi, Mike,

I have just one question for you. Why do we STILL ship products with KNOWN security issues?

I'll even tell you how it works in the trenches. Folks build the product. At the end of it all a "Security Push" gets declared. For two to three weeks people pretend they care about security by coming up with potential security issues and assigning DREAD+VR scores to them. Then management arbitrarily sets the "bar" below which we don't fix potential and real security issues. This bar is usually very high, sometimes at around 8, because hardly anyone has time in the schedule to fix all issues found. Now, DREAD score 8 means that flaw will affect a ton of customers and cost Microsoft significant litigation. Some of very severe bugs slip under the bar just because they don't affect more than 10% of customers. Now, even this exercise is a joke, because most developers don't know what DFD is and how to put one together.

This wasn't even the most ridiculous part of the exercise. The most ridiculous part is security "code reviews". It's when feature owners walk into a room with a huge stack of printouts and pretend they can be reviewed in a couple of hours they've allocated for this. You can barely glance through this much code in this much time, 90% of security issues remain unnoticed during this "code review".

After all is said and done, product is only slightly more secure (SOME of the most ridiculous things have been fixed), and management gets delusional saying that product is now Fort Knox secure.

If you ask me, that's abomination, not a proper security process. Are there any plans to change it?

Nash: Wow this is a great, yet difficult question. First, I should say that there is a great process for security quality called the Security Development Lifecycle (SDL) that is designed to make sure that we act consistently as a company. This means having a well documented, repeatable process, great education that teaches people how to follow the process and the accountability to make sure that process is being followed consistently. A part of this accountability is something called the final security review (FSR) that my team executes on behalf the company to make sure that the process is actually being followed. At the end of the day, the product group that ships the product is accountable to make sure that the process is followed.

I often get asked the question, "who has been fired for shipping insecure code at Microsoft?" My usual answer here is that we are still learning a lot about security at Microsoft and that most of the security issues that we deal with don't come as a result of carelessness or disregard for the process, but rather new vectors of attack that we didn't understand at the time.

One of the key things that will make this work is consistent execution across the company. I won't say that we have or should have the same level of rigor across all of our products (Windows deserves more scrutiny than say, a game), but we must apply the process appropriately. Generally speaking, Microsoft product groups are following the process consistently. That said, Microsoft has over 60,000 employees, so it's not a huge surprise that we have some people who just don't get it. While it's not a huge surprise, it's also not acceptable. If we have a group that is not aware of the process, then we have an education issue. If we have a group that is knowingly ignoring the SDL or deprioritizing it, at best we have an accountability problem and at worst an HR problem. The only way that I can help is to know about it so I can have it addressed appropriately. While I see that you posted this question anonymously, I encourage you to contact me directly through email and we can meet to discuss this. I assure you that I will protect your identity. If you are not comfortable with this, call my direct line at Microsoft (using an outside line--so that caller ID is blocked or from a conference room) and I promise not to ask your name.

As I have said many times, the Trustworthy Computing Initiative is a journey that we started in 2002 with measurable improvements along the way. In this case we clearly have a problem that needs to be fixed so that we can improve.

Why no AES in SSL yet?
by jonathan_lampe

Why hasn't Microsoft added AES to its SSL stack yet? As a Microsoft developer, it's annoying to get beaten over the head when facing competing solutions that can use the AES (128-,192- and 256-bit) encryption algorithm in their SSL implementations.

(OpenSSL - including the Mozilla browsers - and Java SSL have all had AES support for a while. Most SSH implementations have also had it for a while.)

Nash: This is a great question. The AES was approved as a FIPS algorithm after Windows XP was released in 2001. Adding it to Windows XP RTM was basically not possible. Our approach for cryptography was and is to support a pluggable model and enable replacement in our platform in a broad sense. IE and IIS depend on the platform (OS) cryptography capabilities, so adding this capability was an operating system change vs. a change in the browser, as was the case with Mozilla.

While it's fair to say that we could have just dropped AES support into the platform, the approach for pluggable crypto enables a lot more flexibility for customers. For Windows Vista, we added support for pluggable cryptography, which we refer to as CAPI next generation or CNG. With CNG we not only add support for AES, but also add support for Elliptical Curve (ECC) Cryptography and the Sha-2 family of hash algorithms.

We are currently looking at the feasibility and benefits of making this capability available down-level. I should also note that in contrast to the existing AES implementations that have not been through an evaluation, we plan to get our implementation evaluated to meet FIPS guidelines and requirements.

VISTA users must still be administrators?
by arminw

In current Windows systems, many programs will only work correctly if the user is granted administrator rights. Will MS lean on developers to write their software such, that a normal user status is sufficient? Much malware today silently installs itself without so much as a warning to the user. Will VISTA incorporate some sort of warning and ask for a password before ANY executable file can run for the first time or install itself deep in the system? Will users be told NOT to type password unless they are SURE the file comes from a trusted source?

Nash: One of the key enhancements in Windows Vista is something called User Account Control, which in my mind is a fancy name for standard user that works. There are really two parts of User Account Control. The first is a significant set of changes to Windows Vista so that the system doesn't require admin rights in places that shouldn't, while still protecting the system in cases that should require admin. I will give you a simple example that illustrates what I mean. In Windows XP today, you need to be an administrator to run the clock applet in the control panel, but as it turns out there are cases where the user shouldn't need to be an admin to run this applet. For example, a standard user should be able to LOOK at the clock. In addition, while changing the time on the system should require admin privilege (to maintain the integrity of system logs, etc.), when I travel from Seattle to Boston, I should be able to change the time zone of the system so that I know the local time and show up for meetings on time, etc.

So in Vista we separated these functions so that standard users can do the things that standard users need to do, but still require admin for the things that need protection.

The other thing added is something we call protected admin. This is a mode that administrators run in by default. If someone is configured as an admin, their basic execution happens as a standard user. When they try to do something that requires the administrator privilege, the system prompts them to see if they want to elevate to admin to complete the task, and if they consent, just that task is elevated (this is more secure that SUPERUSR ON in Unix that elevates the entire session). When the task completes, the high privileged process is torn down. The system can also be configured to require a password on elevation.

As you note, this also has a lot of implications around application compatibility and a ton of work is being done to help ISVs building solutions for Vista to make sure that their applications run as standard user if appropriate.

For existing (legacy applications) we find that most applications break into one of four categories: 1) applications that already run well as standard user, 2) applications that really do require admin privilege (system utilities for example), 3) applications that check for admin privilege, but don't really need it, and 4) applications that require admin privilege for a some portion of their functionality.

For applications that run as standard user, we are set. Similarly, applications that really should require admin privilege run as they should. If a standard user encounters such an application, in the home (e.g., non domain joined scenario) the standard user is prompted to have someone who has admin privilege type in a password to elevate the system to run the application as appropriate. We call this the "over the shoulder" elevation case.

For applications that check for admin, but don't really need it, the situation is usually that the developer of the application didn't want to take the time to test the application in both the standard and admin user modes, so they put a check in at initialization. We have a pretty good list of these applications, so for the ones we know about, we put a little compatibility shim in the software so that when one of these known applications check to see if the user is running at admin level, the system will report back that they are even though they are a standard user. This preserves application compatibility, but provides no risk on unauthorized escalation since the user really is just a standard user.

For applications that require admin for some part of their execution, we are providing guidance to the ISVs on how to re-factor their applications so that the components that the end sees don't need the privilege and the ones that do need to can be isolated and componentized so that most users don't encounter the escalation.

by hahiss

How is it that OpenBSD is able to be so secure by design with so few resources and yet all of Microsoft's resources cannot stem the tide of security problems that impact everyone, including those of us who do not use Microsoft programs?

Nash: First, I should say that OpenBSD includes a relatively small subset of the functionality that is included in Windows. You could argue that Microsoft should follow the same model for Windows that the OpenBSD Org follows for their OS. The problem is that users really want an OS that includes support for rich media content and for hardware devices, etc. So while OpenBSD has done a good job of hardening their kernel, they don't seem to also audit important software that are used commonly by customers, such as PHP, Perl, etc. for security vulnerabilities. At Microsoft we're focusing on the entire software stack, from the Hardware Abstraction Layer in Windows, all the way through the memory manager, network stack, file systems, UI and shell, Internet Explorer, Internet Information Services, compilers (C/C++, .NET), Microsoft Exchange, Microsoft Office, Microsoft SQL Server and much, much more. If a software company's goal is to secure customers, you have to secure the entire stack. Simply hardening one component, regardless of how important it is, does not solve real customer problems.

Second, it is not completely accurate to say that OpenBSD is more secure. If you compare vulnerability counts just from the last 3 months, OpenBSD had 79 for November, December and January compared to 11 for Microsoft (and that includes one each for Office and Exchange - so really 9 for all versions of Windows). I encourage you to look at the numbers reported at the OpenBSD site to verify that this is true.

("Bonus" question added by Mike Nash)

Differences Between Windows & Other Employers?
by eldavojohn

Mr. Nash, what are the greatest differences and similarities between Microsoft Corp. and Data General Corp., your two most recent employers? Most importantly, how drastic were the changes you saw (not necessarily changes due to job function but changes in general)? What do you like the most and what do you hate the most?

Nash: Great question. First, its been a while since I worked at DG (I left DG for business school in 1989). That said, I would say that the biggest difference between the two companies is that while DG was fundamentally a hardware company, Microsoft is first and foremost a software company. DG was primarily focused on driving a business based on selling hardware and software was a necessary component of that business, but not something that was valued on its own. In contrast, Microsoft's basic premise is that the hardest problems can be best solved with software and as a part of that the power of hardware can be realized best through great software.

The second biggest difference is while DG always measured itself in terms of other companies (Digital was the big deal back when I was at Data General), Microsoft is a company that is constantly trying to reinvent itself. As a result, Microsoft is much more self critical, but at the same time willing to make long term investments to address both new opportunities and short comings. The Trustworthy Computing Initiative is a great example. Soon after Blaster happened, a lot of people I spoke to (inside and outside Microsoft) asked me if Blaster was evidence that the Trustworthy Computing Initiative was a failure. My response was just the opposite. I was super glad that we had taken the time to focus on and improve our security. If we hadn't things would have been much worse. At the same time, Blaster did provide some pretty clear guidance on some changes we had to make around Trustworthy Computing (TwC). More than that, it reminded us all that we would have to continue make some major changes in TwC as we continued to learn, so we should just plan for it. That approach is mostly a matter of culture and frankly if the leadership of DG had had a similar point of view, their might be a DG today. For sure it's why there is great change and innovation at Microsoft more than 30 years in. And yeah, it's hard work.

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