Microsoft says hackers know too much

The manager of Microsoft's security response centre has warned against providing too much information about software...

The manager of Microsoft's security response centre has warned against providing too much information about software vulnerabilities.

The practice of publishing explicit, step-by-step instructions for exploiting vulnerabilities contributed to the damage that was inflicted on users of Windows-based systems by recent worms such as Code Red and Nimda, said Scott Culp, manager of Microsoft's security response centre.

However, several users said that while Microsoft had raised a valid and long-standing issue, the company itself is to blame for many of the security problems affecting its software.

"The problems are most certainly not caused by full disclosure. They're caused by bad coding practices," said Josh Turiel, network services manager at the US-based company, Holyoke Mutual Insurance.

Culp criticised the "information anarchy" that "allows even relative novices to build highly destructive 'malware' " using published information about vulnerability exploits.

People who make the information available have argued that it can help systems administrators work out how to protect their systems. However, Culp maintained that Microsoft's investigations of worms such as Nimda, Code Red and Sadmind clearly showed that those worms used techniques similar to ones that had been detailed publicly. In some cases, they employed even the same file names and code.

As a result, Culp said, it would be better to tell users only what systems are affected, how they are affected and what can be done to plug the holes. For example, Microsoft's new severity rating system is meant to give users a better idea of the risks posed by different vulnerabilities.

Leaving out specific examples is generally a good idea, Turiel agreed. But, he added: "The danger, as I see it, is that if someone discovers a flaw and it's not repaired or disclosed to the public, how do we defend against people who know about it?"

David Lelievre, a project manager at Tweddle Information Services, an application service provider, commented that a mere lack of published information would not prevent hackers from writing viruses.

With that in mind, Microsoft should focus on fixing the vulnerabilities in its software, not on criticising those who publicise the information, said David Krauthamer, MIS manager at Advanced Fibre Communications, a maker of telecommunications equipment.

However, Daniel McCall, an analyst at Guardent, said Microsoft does have a point.

"Our view is, don't tell people how to break a system," McCall said. A far better approach would be to release vulnerability information only after a fix has been developed, he said. Guardent informs vendors and other relevant parties when holes are discovered and then waits until patches are available before publicising the flaws.

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