Trust Me – I’m a Doctor

Does anybody own a Skoda or know any good Skoda jokes?

It wasn’t so long ago that the thought of a Skoda achieving a favourable comparison with an Audi, seemed as improbable an idea as associating, well Microsoft, with any suggestion of secure computing. You could have any colour you liked, even add a nodding dog or a pair of fluffy dice but you weren’t going to impress people with your credibility. Until that is, the day, everything changed. The Skoda became almost respectable.

You may remember, that last month, I told you that Microsoft’s Chief Security Officer, Stuart Okin, in a last-ditch effort to convince me that the company was serious about “Trustworthy Computing”, flung open the doors of the Microsoft Campus in Reading and offered me unrestricted and uncensored access to anyone I would like to question about the seriousness of the company’s security strategy. There isn’t the space here for a detailed report, which will come later but I’ll share my early impressions with you.

Microsoft, like Skoda, has an image problem. Skoda, has gone a long way towards solving their own but Microsoft, try as hard it likes, can’t shift the weary cynicism that surrounds its claims that it’s software now has security as a number-one priority and that improvements are already beginning to show. But this new commitment to more secure computing, that started back in April confronts the company with a number of different problems. As one person I spoke with commented, “Trust is not something that you can enforce, it’s a process” and the results are frequently invisible.

What I’m asked, should the company do. Should it keep vulnerabilities a secret until a patch is available or should it disclose an exploit the moment it appears? It’s firmly wedged between a dilemma of its own making and unlike the Labour spin-doctors at Milbank, hasn’t yet found a third-way of explaining its policies.

Ironically, most of the people I have spoken to inside the company so far, agree that ‘Trustworthy Computing’ was, with the benefit of hindsight, the wrong expression to describe what Microsoft is trying to achieve, because trust and Microsoft, like Skoda and quality, don’t sit comfortably together in the collective unconscious. Responsible computing might have been a better choice. Why because the company, pointing at the statistics, wants its customers to understand that security is a partnership, where both vendor and customer share an equal responsibility to ensure that all possible precautions have been taken to avoid a security compromise. In fact, Microsoft tells me that it has now made a higher security setting a default in its products, reversing its previous policy, which for faster and easier installation, had security in an optional state. “It’s a functional trade-off”, I’m told “But it’s the beginning of a change which impacts all our software, which previously focused far more on ease-of-use over other considerations”.

Of course, there’s more digging yet to be done before I can confidently declare that Microsoft, like Jeffrey, is a reformed character, even though, as the company admits, the legacy of millions of users with earlier versions of Windows will be with us for several more years yet. There’s no magic wand at work here, simply seeing the light won’t be enough to switch-off the threat until we’re all using up-to-date software and clearly understand what steps are required to keep the hackers and scrip-kiddies at a comfortable distance.

What I did say to my Microsoft friends over lunch, is that if we’re going to talk about Responsible Computing and Microsoft losing that Skoda image, then its back to school for the company to study the ‘Three R’s’, which in this case happen to be ‘Responsibility, Reliability and Respect’. Without these three in equal measure, as fundamental principles of both software engineering and marketing, reforming the company’s Skoda-like image and reputation for security is a non-starter. But there’s always hope, even for Microsoft, so watch this space!

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