Cleaning up a minor security argument

I saw a slashdot article this morning about Apple releasing more vuln fixes. In the comment section, discussion broke into the usual “why do people think Macs are safer then Windows” arguements. The two major points of “it has less of a market” and “it’s just more secure” went back and forth. I happen to think both are an oversimplification of the subject.

Vuln finding is a function people of going after whatever is currently easiest. Many attackers have broaden their horizons to other platforms once Windows became significantly more secure and harden against attack. Oracle was the next major target and Apple might be the one after. I admit that I love the irony of the switch after both companies choose to market on how they must be more secure since people weren’t finding vulns in them.

Exploits on the other hand is based on the business case these days. The vulns are available but Windows didn’t have the magnitude of the problem it did until there was a profit motive to create bot networks.

So to put it together, vulns found help you tell about the security of an area, exploiting tells you about how profitable a particular OS is to attack. The corollary of this rule is that as a random host you are as profitable as the OS, as a specific host with specific data or rights you are as valuable to attack as that data or rights. The result being that if your data is valuable is doesn’t matter that there are few exploits for your box when there are plenty of vulns.

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Get together my thoughts on OOXML/ODF

An attempt to respond to the latest thing I’ve read and stake out my feelings on ODF/OOXML.

From what I understand of the market, you have a number of (free) add-on ODF plugins for Microsoft Office. This means that the simple requirement being able to read and write the format will be satisfied to the level of quality of the plugins and the ability of the interoperable aspects of the ODF standard to handle office semantics. I feel that the blogoshpere has made it clear that the only way ODF will be able to handle the body of existing office documents (Bugs and features) at full fidelity is for there to be a large number of extensions that would render ODF something not ODF anymore, especially from the standpoint of other ODF implementations. It might be in the vaguely “right” looking container, but it would not be interoperable. Any movement in this space would (rightly?) be branded Embrace, Extend, Extinguish.

I believe it is clear that users want something like OpenXML. We’ve seen that previous movements in this direction by office in the 2003 products are never used because of the loss of fidelity. I’m just not going to migrate my spreadsheets to ODF format if my formulas are going to break, and that is the type of user complaints that you will start to get when you tell your customers you must move over. If you don’t get how complex this type of thing gets, you should start reading Raymond Chen’s blog. It is quite obvious how hostile the ODF crowd appears to be to backwards comparability with the amount of hoopla generated around supporting the 1900 excel/lotus 123 date issues in OOXML.

Could all the the technical issues been worked out in ODF? Maybe. I think the hostile environment, the time required to work on modifications to ODF in an open way and the timeline for the politics and government mandates pretty much precluded that option for the short term. On the brightside, ODF folks can take the out there and free OOXML spec and decide how they want to absorb it for future versions of ODF. Thus somday the promised nirvana of ODF being the native interoperable format of all office suites that it’s supporters want might be realized. In the here and now, there is a pretty cool creative energy that both formats competing right now has created. In an attempt to score points in some insane “Who is Right” contest both sides are pointing out the flaws in the other, and the pragmatists will pick up the real stuff and just make thier stuff better. This is a good thing no matter how ugly the process is to get there.

In the background of this debate, It appears that their are two camps in the world when it comes to this stuff, purists who believe that future technology should be clean slates not marred with the real world and those who muck around in the complex world of user demand and prior work. I have to admit out of college I was very much in favor of the purist view of the world. This little debate is making me realize that I’ve now firmly landed in the other camp. The purist typically ends in the worst hacks and/or low adoption. There are a lot of people out there who use software and just don’t care about the religious battles. It doesn’t matter what your standard is or how you architected the code is, if it doesn’t solve the user’s needs.  Put simply, users are more important then you or I and placing requirements down that are tangential to their needs is just a speedbump for them to roll over. The coders who love and support these users are going to have to help carry forward whatever hack someone came up with to get around the artificial speedbump. The sooner one grok’s this concept the better the world might be.

If ODF solves a user’s needs, they will use it, if OOXML solves it better it will be used regardless of which of them have ISO certification. There is already ECMA certification and good IP promises for OOXML. (The inability to use without IP considerations a file embded in either format is a red herring). It appears that Microsoft is supportive of having OOXML ISO certified, which sounds great to me. If there are considerations unrelated to ODF then they should be fixed, but the notion of which sausage factory produced the 1.0 spec or that you can’t have both formats be standards seems silly to me. Both are too new on the scene to have proven that they are going to be the end all. If anything, office via market share and caring about backwards compatability has a huge leg up.

Disclaimer: I work for Microsoft but nothing to do with office.

Vista DRM

There a pretty reasonable podcast about Vista DRM in Security Now #75. Key points:

  • Worse case is that you can’t play content that demnands a super secure path.
  • No known media is requesting the super secure path. It is very questionable if anyone will ever want to take the PR hit of actually using it.
  • Constriction or “fuzzyness” is for the high quality content; not everything on your screen and only if the content requires it.
  • The main device you are probably playing HD-DVD’s on is laptops who have onboard graphics and are exempt from a number of things that people are concerned about.

Update: Just to be fair, there are a number of legit concerns that the Gutmann paper talks about, but even in that paper there are examples that people have let thier imagination run away with. The legit concerns include: side effects to how open hardware is when hardware needs to authenticate to the driver (They should do a public key thing here IMHO), Hardware/CPU costs in dealing with encrypting content across an open pci bus, potential cost for splitting out drivers to mitigate potential protect content trust revocation, the potental for hardware manufactures to destablize a PC when creating an implementation of tilt bits and IP/Licencing costs for the content protection hardware. To me these are pretty minor or requires assuming the worst for a true bad effect.

Vista FUD

It’s easier then ever to get a continuous stream of Windows Vista FUD. In the past you had slashdot, but had to ignore the pesky rated 5 comments which often would point out the obvious stuff. Now however we have the BadVista blog, which is FSF new foray into the world of pure unadulterated BS. Some of which the press runs away with because there aren’t enough people actually using the software to call BS loud enough. Let’s look at some of today’s news stream:

  1. Microsoft Vista is not an option
    This link is about the “Licensing and Activation” hurt hobbiests meme. We have a writer who switches out the hardware inside his case once a week and is using XP. To my spider senses, Something doesn’t add up here. XP already has activation. Even If they tightened up the requirements (which in practice remains to be seem) he should already be tripping over activation left and right. In some ways activation has gotten less onerous, especially in cases where you buy a computer from a OEM like Dell or HP. Personally, I have built all the machines in my house, and swap around components regularly (although I guess I’m too busy and poor to swap things weekly on a single machine). I’ve been bit by re-activation and had to call the activation help for my home machines twice since 2001. I told them that I was moving around components and things worked within 5 minutes both times, this is hardly social engineering. I don’t expect Vista to be any different, and I’ve already moved some hardware around. If the author hasn’t been through this already with XP, the the worst I would expect is that he will make the 5 minute phone call once a couple years. If the fear of that potential phone call and not even a real experience is bad enough to make him switch to another OS, then I not sure Vista is the real issue.
  2. DRM behind lack of Windows Vista drivers.. and fear new content protection.
    This is based on the Gutmann FUD, which spells out a worse case scenario for the implementation DRM in Vista based on random bits of documentation and conjecture. The basic problem here is that the worst case scenario he envisions isn’t  how anything was implemented and causal checks confirm it. There are still class drivers for video. Non-protected content (which is most of what I have) plays unmolested, even while I play DRM’d music and video.  There is an example in the paper of expensive optical system computer in a hospital going fuzzy because the user is playing music. The first question a reader should ask is, even if the hospital bought into that sort of DRM and the system was designed that way (which from casual observation it isn’t) why would the hospital not buy a computer system to view the imagery that supported a DRM path in the hardware. It’s like buying a CAT scan system and not buying a compatible display to see the results.
    In reality there is more drivers and compatibility for Vista pre launch then there was for XP (probably because of continuation of the move to class drivers and early frequent public releases). Inherent to the whole arguement is a bet that you will have pervasive protected content you want. This is the same bet that iTunes Music Store makes. If you want to watch such content, then you won’t want to run an OS where you can’t watch such content, and only systems with these protections will be allowed to decrypt it. Back in the early days of DVD’s, Linux had zero players until the protection scheme for DVD’s was broken. These days the new formats won’t be cracked that easily as they have learned a couple lessons since then. (They can remove support from all future media for a player’s decryption key once it’s known to be cracked and the general purpose cracking is probably much harder)
    There are some real stuff to the story, supporting DRM through hardware is not free, and if you want that feature you will pay for it (similar to how we all pay for DVD support), but none of this is Vista specific. The main thing with Vista that you might complain about is that it supports it at all, or that Microsoft hasn’t done enough to fight DRM. Of course if you buy PowerDVD for BlueRay or HD-DVD you are getting pretty much the same thing from a different vendor. This type of stuff really annoys open source purists because licensing and securing implementation runs counter to the basic philosophy, but it’s not a showstopper as companies that actually build commercial products using pieces of open source don’t have such issues.
    I’ll also note that I’m not in love with DRM, but that’s a topic I’ll save for a different post.
  3. Vista: Why Bother?
    This starts with the insufficient hardware meme. If you asked me right after beta 2 shipped, I would be wholeheartedly agreeing. What I have discovered is that a) they fixed much of that between beta and release and b) more RAM fixes the rest . Ironically the RAM part was exactly what I was sitting around realizing when XP shipped. The end rule is if you bought it in the last two years new, get it up to say 1 Gb RAM, it’ll be fine.
    The actual piece plays a bunch of games with the facts. First it talks about video editing, which is demanding in general and nothing specific to Vista. Even looking at the Mac’s that advertise high end video editing you are looking at some seriously powerful machines. Processor, RAM speed and file system speed are the things I’ve noticed are the big deal, not OS. Next there is the 94% figure, which pulls a double whammy, first it is a survey of corporate machines, which since they tend to do simpler less CPU/ram intensive things compared to consumer PCs. The more realistic numbers are the CPU replacement numbers (replacing the CPU, especially in older machines usually means a new PC), here we see 84% of corporate PCs will be ready from a CPU standpoint (I suspect many of the 84% will need more RAM, but the numbers aren’t in the article). The other little trick done with that number is using the premium level of readiness instead of the minimum. For corporate PCs, the difference between the premium and the Min are features that won’t be missed doing day to day work, like the flashier GUI.
    Next in the piece is software compatibility. This is a harder area, although three of his examples are now bogus. The Zune software for Vista is already released on zune.org, I’m running the Vista Powershell (it comes as an OS update, so it’s mostly an issue of packaging, not compatibility as people running the old msi versions of Powershell can attest). The new Virtual PC has hit RC status. OpenGL is supported in the major graphic vendors drivers. I’ve found that most of the real issues with compatibility are from deeply integrated software using unpublished interfaces who aren’t in a rush to put the vista versions out and UAC related issues. For many of these companies the clock didn’t start until we RTM’d Vista. The latter is a price we will pay for the security it brings, but will be lessened as compatibility updates come out. On the anacdotal side, I’m mainly feel pain with x64 versus x86 rather then Vista versus XP.
    Also in the piece Start Menu issue. My start menu has two options for “shutdown” and a somewhat hidden advanced menu. The two options on my box are: low power mode and lock session. Ironically, I don’t even use either of them on my home machine. I just push the power button on my case to go to low power mode. At work I only use the Lock one (assuming I don’t just press Windows-L). So it appears they choose the right two.
    For bonus points the author then compares upgrading a point release of openSUSE to upgrading Vista from XP. A fair comparison would be to a service pack update, although I would guess that even that would be more then the dot release.
    Which finally concludes in the classic, why update? If you need a single compelling reason to go to vista, it would be security and maybe the flashier GUI, after that it just feels better, the sum of a thousand little things. This is not great for marketing, but pure addicting goodness as a user and home admin. This should become quite apparent after the OS is actually out there, but you can see it in people like the TWIT crowd who has talked about their experiences since they first installed it and now really like it (oh and they are heavy Mac users). My suggestion is to find someway to use it for a week or two and decide for yourself.

Disclosure: I am a Microsoft Employee who works on Windows, but these views are my personal ones and are not my employers.

New York Times Reader

The New York Times has developed a pretty cool windows client using the avalon Windows Presentation Framework in .Net Framework 3.0. The pp downloads the articles so that you can browse the news paper offline, it re-flows the content to intelligently display articles based on the size of the windows, has great search features, keeps read state, lets you annotate the articles save it off, etc. It’s a pretty powerful demonstration of what new windows applications can be like.  Right now it uses the free NyTimes registration. Check it out!

 

 

 

MSR talks online

My Favorite unadvertised benefit of working for Microsoft is access to the various speakers that come through campus and give talks to MSR. It is great to here that many of them have made it to the public on ResearchChannel. I’ve bookmarked on del.icio.us a number of talks I’ve seen and enjoyed and a couple that I haven’t seen and want to. Special notice to the two MSPAC ones, David Brin, Mandelbrot, Bruce Campbell, Malcolm Gadwell and Cory Doctorow.

Either I don't get it or Cringely is over the top wrong

In the latest I Cringely, Cringely offers analysis that just doesn’t make sense to me. He predicts that Dell was the reason that Vista isn’t shipping this holiday season. While I believe he is 100% correct that it has to do with OEM lead time, he is way off thinking it was Dell. Dell is the company that doesn’t have long inventory chains and assembles the computers at the last possible minute. Other OEMS like HP have long lead times as they ship machines assembled and installed from Asia (and it really is a long boat ride). Microsoft had a choice, let Vista come out when it is ready and have a piecemeal market availability as more agile OEMS hit the holiday market, or do one giant launch when everyone can have the OS installed. He finally acknowledges this aspect as an afterthought, but I think it’s the most critical piece to the decision.

He then takes a sweeping amount of ignorance and combines it with a single datapoint from a conference to get that vista won’t be any better regarding security and malware. As someone who has gone through the culture shift here and seen so many features thrown on the back burner to make room for UAC, protected mode IE, theat models, security audits (internal and external) and more. I just have to guess he isn’t following this area at all.

Then he makes a prediction that Apple’s Bootcamp will just make Microsoft more money because apple users will buy Windows retail. I think a good analogy for this is naked pcs, where people buy a machine without an OS or one with Lindows and just pops in a Window XP CD they have around or borrowed from some one else. I’m less worried about retailers doing it or businesses, but it remains to be seen how much these channels will want Windows on their boxen.