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The Sum of All Our Fears

Over dinner at the eCrime Congress I found myself sitting next to the CTO of Microsoft’s Security Business Unit, Dave Aucsmith, who isn’t your usual kind of industry character. We had started talking about flying and that’s when I realised that the novelist, Tom Clancy, may have loosely based his character of Jack Ryan on Aucsmith, who, as a former US Navy intelligence officer can count active service in carrier-borne F14 Tomcat fighters, followed by a stint in submarines, in addition to being the CTO for Intel prior to being lured to Microsoft.

Aucsmith believes that we may have seen the end of the RPC/DCOM style exploits against the Microsoft platform that peaked last year, now that the critical gaps in the Windows code have been patched. However, he points out, that the time between a patch being made available to the public and the first exploit appearing has now decreased to a level which makes patching no defence in larger organisations. In fact, it now takes an average of nine days for a patch to be reverse engineered by hackers to expose the vulnerability it protects against. “Blaster”, says Aucsmith, “Demonstrated the complex interplay between security researchers, software companies and hackers who now hack together worms with posted exploit code and worm toolkits”, a worrying new phenomenon regardless of which flavour of Operating System you might favour.

In defense of the progress being made under the company’s Trustworthy Computing initiative, Aucsmith points out that the security kernel of Windows NT was written before there was a World Wide Web and before TCP/IP was the default communications protocol. Even when one examines the progress made in Windows Server 2003, with its much reduced attack surface, he conceded that its own security kernel was written before buffer overflow tool kits that led to last summer’s damage were available and before Web Services were widely deployed, a fact which only illustrates the nature of the fast-moving target that Microsoft and indeed, any other software vendor has to second guess. If the speed of development and demand for counter measures isn’t bad enough, he points to the problem of highly popular enterprise software products – with off the record examples – that sit on top of the Windows platform but offer poor or very limited security features which only add to the risks of a downstream compromise for which Microsoft is frequently blamed.

So what comes next in the war on Windows? If you look at the history of exploits says Aucsmith, we’ve had attacks against the network protocols, we’ve had DNS spoofing and fractured packets, the “Ping of death”, attacks against Operating System Services and most recently various buffer overruns, Web spoofs and worms. Hopefully, on properly patched systems, those doors are now closed, although the problem of millions of unpatched legacy systems still remains in a growing Broadband environment. What may come next could be attacks against Application Services or even SQL injection but Aucsmith now sees the emphasis moving increasingly towards the theft of information, social engineering and backdoor Trojan control of personal computers, a new phenomenon that demands a concerted international response to the emergence of cyber crime.

What we do know, is that while the larger holes in the Microsoft Operating System have now been patched, the information security battle, like a fast moving Tom Clancy novel, has now moved to a different dimension where the defense of the Windows environment is only part of a much greater tactical problem for the defenders of cyberspace.


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