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RSA: Microsoft fortifies Web services security

Microsoft has used the RSA Conference 2002 to highlight the efforts it is making to comply with its pledge to improve security, and has unveiled sample code for an XML filter to fortify Web services environments.

Designed as a plug-in for Microsoft's enterprise firewall, Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server 2000, the software aims to protect Web services transactions from potential XML-based outside attacks and drop inadequate or suspicious message requests, said Zachary Gutt, technical product manager of ISA Server for Microsoft.

"The key for [Web services security] is that anytime the message is requested, the bad traffic never makes it into your network," said Gutt.

Built through Visual Studio.net and extending the application-layer filtering capability of ISA Server, Gutt said the XML filter would help customers establish a trusted framework to authenticate users, route and authorise Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) messages, and verify the integrity of XML data transmissions.

Chris Christiansen, program director of Internet security at IDC, suggests that escalating levels of XML traffic will open the door for hybrid attacks that could disrupt or overpower Web services, by methods such as buffer overflow or DoS (denial of service) bombardments.

During the RSA Conference, Microsoft has been at pains to emphasise Bill Gate's "trustworthy computing" effort to clean up the firm's security record. A huge part of that push, said Gutt, will involve getting raw code into the hands of developers to tinker with sooner rather than later. "It's going to be a huge culture switch at Microsoft," Gutt remarked.

During his keynote address on Wednesday (20 February), Craig Mundie, vice-president and chief technology officer for strategic programs at Microsoft, said the company would make immediately available specifications to its Kerberos implementation to allow developers to build interoperable software.

Microsoft has said it will add support for Keberos in its Passport .net authentication mechanism to extend application interoperability. Kerberos, a network-authentication protocol using strong secret-key cryptography, is already embedded in a variety of Microsoft products and operating systems.

Mundie said Microsoft would grant a royalty-free licence to the Group Membership Privilege Access Certificate (PAC) specifications. This will allow developers to interpret and use Kerberos authorisation data. The licence and download should appear on Microsoft's Web site in the near future, he added.

The sample XML filter employs a simple algorithm to decide whether an XML request is valid, if the user is allowed to access the Web service behind the firewall, and if the structure and content of the XML document are valid.

The free filter is available for download at Microsoft's ISA Server Web site at www.microsoft.com/isaserver/techinfo/development.
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