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Microsoft Security Report Points Fingers at ISVs

The overall number of Windows security holes has declined in the last year by 8.4 percent to about 2,500 vulnerabilities, according to a new Microsoft report.

For a big target like Microsoft, that's good news. It's one of the findings in the eighth edition of Microsoft's "Security Intelligence Report," published Monday, which draws its data mostly from the second half of 2009. The report, which also tracks vulnerabilities in third-party software, can be downloaded here.

The bad news: almost to a person security experts are saying that it's time for independent software vendors (ISVs) who leverage Windows components to step up their own security strategies. And Microsoft thinks so too. Newer Windows operating systems are less vulnerable to attack. Instead, hacker and botnet attacks have shifted toward targeting third-party programs and utilities running on Windows.

In particular, third-party "auto updaters don't work for an enterprise environment," according to Nancee Melby, director of product marketing at Shavlik Technologies.

"An enterprise can't rely on faith that critical security updates are deployed in a timely fashion," she added. "It's time for the third-party vendors to look at Microsoft as an example and stop repeating the mistakes of the past."

Around 45 percent of attacks in 2009 exploited third-party apps on Windows XP. With Vista and Windows 7, that number was closer to 75 percent, according to the report.

Adobe's patching frequency has proved to be a case in point. Microsoft's report identified Adobe Reader as a consistently vulnerable application for Windows 7 users. Three of 10 troublesome third-party apps came from Adobe, according to the report.

"It's clear Microsoft has learned that Windows is often guilty by association--justified or not--when third-party apps have security problems," said Don Leatham, senior director of solutions and strategy at Lumension. "Microsoft has a strategy in place where they opened up the WSUS [Windows Server Update Services] APIs to allow ISVs to provide patches via Microsoft's corporate patching technology. They have done essentially the same for the System Center platform, but unfortunately there has not been widespread adoption of these capabilities by the ISV community."

As in Microsoft's previous security reports, the numbers show that more recent versions of Windows operating systems are less vulnerable to attack. Nevertheless, Microsoft's Malicious Software Removal Tool detected malware on eight of every 1,000 computers scanned in the United States during the second half of 2009. The United States was also the No. 1 target of rogue malware, according to the report.

"The only thing that Microsoft has done with Vista and Windows 7 is to make it much harder to use vulnerabilities in the design of the operating system to be the vector of attack," commented Phil Lieberman, president of Lieberman Software.

With the advent of cloud computing, Microsoft will face the additional challenges of managing their datacenter infrastructure and the security of their customer's data, while providing transparency on security policies.

"Microsoft must also get into the business of helping customers implement segregation of duties, physical security controls using mutual authentication, for instance, machine-to-machine verification and certificate management," Lieberman said.

About the Author

Jabulani Leffall is a business consultant and an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the Financial Times of London, Investor's Business Daily, The Economist and CFO Magazine, among others. He consulted for Deloitte & Touche LLP and was a business and world affairs commentator on ABC and CNN.

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