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Microsoft Vision Raises Questions

Past developments suggest that Microsoft's future security road may be a bumpy ride

SAN FRANCISCO -- RSA Conference -- Microsoft's top dogs in security offered their vision of the future of enterprise security in their keynote address here yesterday. But some attendees left the address scratching their heads, wondering about the efficacy of some key building blocks in the software giant's strategy.

In their presentation, company chairman Bill Gates and chief resource and strategy officer Craig Mundie described a "trustworthy computing" environment built on IPSec, digital certificates, and IP Version 6. The company also unveiled its initial implementations of Enhanced Validation SSL and CardSpace, a means of storing data from tokens of authentication on a PC.

But many of these key components of Microsoft's strategy are unproven, and in some cases they are downright controversial, observers note. IPSec, for example, has been criticized for its potential to serve as a carrier for future malware.

SSL VPNs are more secure than IPSec when the remote user's machine is connected to the network, said Dino Dai Zovi, a researcher with Matasano Security, in an interview last year. (See Holes Remain in SSL VPNs.)

"With an IPSec VPN, the remote user's machine is fully connected to the remote network," Dai Zovi said. "Worms and other malware can connect directly to hosts on the corporate network over the VPN link. With an SSL VPN, software running on the remote user's machine does not have direct access to the corporate network."

Similarly, some users have registered concerns about deploying IPv6, partly because it could create a whole new playing field for hacker exploits and partly because most security vendors don't yet support it. Government agency officials in December registered concern that security companies aren't moving faster on IPv6, and other experts warned that transitional "hybrid" networks using both IPv4 and IPv6 might have twice the vulnerabilities of either one alone.

Gates and Mundie also spent a significant amount of time discussing the use of digital certificates in future PC communications, and the company demonstrated its initial deployment of the EV SSL standard on Internet Explorer 7 here today, using certificates from more than a dozen different certificate authorities.

Yet research published earlier this year by Microsoft and Stanford University suggests that users aren't much safer when they use EV SSL. "Unfortunately, participants who received no training in browser security features did not notice the [EV] indicator and did not outperform the control group," the study says. "The participants who were asked to read the IE help file were more likely to classify both real and fake sites as legitimate whenever the phishing warning did not appear." (See EV SSL: Dead on Arrival?)

Microsoft also demonstrated CardSpace -- its technology for storing information on tokens of authentication under Windows Vista -- and announced that it is seeking greater integration between CardSpace and the proposed Open ID 2.0 standards. Gates said that the Open ID 2.0 effort is "very complementary" to the work that Microsoft has done on its Web services security specs, WS-Security and WS-Star.

But CardSpace is unproven in the field, and there are some real questions about whether users should deploy Open ID 2.0 or some sort of federated identity technology, such as the one proposed by the Liberty Alliance. "That's a very difficult debate," says Michael Barrett, CISO at PayPal.

Gates and Mundie were clear that some of the technologies they were discussing were "not there yet," as Mundie put it. But they were equally clear that they view technologies such as IPSec and IPv6 as strategic to Microsoft applications in the future. "By the end of the year, we'll be able to move quite gracefully in the direction of IPv6," Mundie said.

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

  • Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT)
  • Matasano Security LLC

    Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark Reading.com, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one ... View Full Bio

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