Microsoft Defends Security Approaches

For many online users, the thought of Microsoft
jumping deeper into the computer security software game might seem a welcome
and logical respite aimed at helping rid their lives of spyware, malware
and worms trolling the Internet.

But as more research firms point to a steady growth of users abandoning
Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser in favor of Firefox and
others, security analysts see a new effort by
Microsoft to ramp up security offerings in order to nip the erosion.
Anti-virus vendors, meanwhile, see a potential new competitor in the sector.

“There is a lot going on but it seems obvious they’d like to stop these
defections,” John Pescatore, a Gartner research fellow, said of Redmond’s
recent activity.

Those initiatives include last month’s purchase
of anti-spyware company Giant Company Software, signaling Microsoft’s determination
to gain a measure of control over security breaches that have plagued IE and
its ubiquitous Windows operating system. Just weeks after the purchase, the
company rushed out a beta of
Giant’s anti-spyware tool, which includes spyware removal tools.

In addition to the spyware-sniffer beta offer, Microsoft has reportedly
mulled a plan to sell anti-virus software. It also recently began deploying
external testers under its Security Update Validation Program
in order to bolster its monthly patch program by bringing on select patch
testers.

The timing of the releases has security analysts and anti-virus
vendors questioning how much heat Redmond is feeling.

Gytis Barzdukas, a marketing manager in Microsoft’s security business and
technology unit, said the bottom line is that the company is
addressing customers’ needs with its security initiatives. This includes its
ongoing Trusted Computing initiative, working with anti-virus vendors, free
spyware removal tools and an enhanced external patch program.

“We’ve hardened the operating system with SP2 [service pack 2],” which includes
enhancements to security with IE, he said.

As for Microsoft’s malicious software removal tool, it is designed to
complement existing anti-virus offerings, which scan and protect
users’ computer systems.

Despite a rather negative review of the anti-spyware beta by Walter
Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal recently, Barzdukas said reaction
has been largely positive. In his column, Mossberg
wrote that he “could not recommend it.” He noted that built-in defaults
drive the user to MSN, which “smacks of the same kind of coercion the
spyware authors are using.”

Pescatore said his main issue with the beta tools is that they only work
with Internet Explorer.

“If they want to bring this to market, they are going
to have to have it support Mozilla, especially if they wanted to sell the
software to enterprises,” he said. “They’ve got it baked into their DNA that
everything defaults to MSN. If they expect to sell it as an
enterprise product, they need to change also.”

Barzdukas said Microsoft may address such default issues in a subsequent
beta of the product. In addition, he told internetnews.com, the
criticism is somewhat premature, especially for an early beta of the
product.

“We’re doing a lot of work on this,” he said. “Spyware is a growing
problem. It’s everywhere. That’s part of the reason we rolled out the beta
within 21 days of acquiring Giant. We felt it was important
enough to put it out there. That’s the whole concept of a beta.”

The numbers also speak volumes, he added. Microsoft’s spyware removal
tool has seen over three million downloads since its release earlier this
month.

“This is really about making sure we can scan and remove viruses
already on a machine.”

The products could also signal a bigger shift into the anti-virus
software business, say security analysts, which would put Microsoft in
direct competition with major anti-virus and security vendors such as
Symantec and McAfee , Microsoft’s
sometime business partner.

Bill Kerrigan, senior vice president of the consumer division at McAfee,
said his company is capable of thriving under the pressure of new
competition — even if it is from Microsoft — but admitted anyone would be
crazy not to be concerned once a major company takes aim at your
marketplace.

“We are hearing from both partners … and from customers, they do not
want to manage a portfolio,” he said, alluding to the competitive advantage
his company’s all-encompassing multi-layered protection IntruShield would
have over multiple tools from Microsoft. “It has to be comprehensive but
very easy to use.”

But he also said Microsoft’s entrance into the market would create consumer
awareness, brining about more business. Still others warn that Microsoft
could quickly figure out a way to drive that business back to its Redmond
campus.

One chief complaint repeated numerous times about the beta is that
Microsoft is selling a product (Windows) that is often the root of security
problems, and is mulling selling a product that is intended to remedy those
problems.

“It’s a bit like selling the radar gun to the police and then the radar
detector to the speeder,” said Shane Coursen, senior technology consultant with
Kaspersky Labs. Coursen said it was logical to assume that Microsoft
was hearing the footsteps of alternative browsers and operating systems
threatening its dominant market share.

Thomas Kristensen, of Secunia, echoed this theme, saying Microsoft
ought to give IE security the highest possible priority and
that it should ensure the time between discovering vulnerabilities and issuing patches for them decreases.

Barzdukas said Microsoft’s Security Update Validation Program is a new
process to its patch program that includes working with a set of customers
to make sure patches are issued in a timely manner without breaking
applications.

“We just can’t throw a fix out there without testing it. We
have software running on hundreds of millions of computers. This is to make
sure the cure is better than the pain customers are feeling,” he said. It is also
to make sure that customers get an opportunity to run a test of the patch
before it’s released, he added.

As for the recent anti-spyware features, Microsoft has a relationship
with the entire security industry via the Virus Information Alliance,
countered Barzdukas. The mission of the group, which counts security software vendors as members, is to “educate and protect Microsoft customers against the threat of malicious code attacks as well as emerging Internet threats.”

“We talk to these vendors on a daily if not a weekly
basis, and we’ll continue to work them,” he said. “Our recommendation is to
have a firewall and anti-virus software running, sign up for updates and
make sure users are running current anti-virus software.”

Erin Joyce contributed to this story.

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