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TURNER'S VIEWPOINT: The Emperor's New Clothes

TURNER'S VIEWPOINT: The Emperor's New Clothes

One of the major debates in the Open Source vs Proprietary Software debate has always been which one offers more security against intruders and other malfactors. The traditional wisdom has been that Open Source has the advantage of more eyes on the code, scouring it for vulnerabilities, while proprietary software has the advantage that hackers don't have the ability to look for security holes in the source code itself, since it is closely held.

The revelation this week that source code to major portions of two popular Microsoft operating systems are being passed throughout the Net brings this debate to an end. I, personally, have always suspected that the source code to proprietary OSes would always been available to a buyer with the right amount of money. After all, it just takes one disgruntled worker with a high-capacity USB RAM drive on his keychain to smuggle the goods out of a building. But now that millions of lines of code to Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 2000 are readily available to anyone with a modem, there can be no denial of the brutal truth.

So in light of this new world order of software, what's the new conventional wisdom? Open Source remains as it has always been, an arena where malicious forces are free to search for holes to exploit, while armies of developers busily patch and repair any problems they find. But on the other hand, Microsoft in particular is being called out for walking around naked.

It's the worst of all possible worlds for Microsoft users. They have no abilility to fix problems found in Microsoft operating systems themselves, since only Microsoft can issue patches. On the other hand, the forces of evil now have the ability to look at the actual sources and hand-craft viruses and worms to weasel into Microsoft systems. So now it will be a handful of Microsoft developers against the world.

In fact, it's even worse. Since downloading a copy of the stolen code places you in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, you can't even look at the source to see how bad the problem might be. Obviously, some Russian Mafia coder will have no such compunctions not to do it. So the guys in the White Hats are still technically left in the dark, while the Black Hats have a whole new resource to exploit.

Considering that in the era before the release of the Windows source code, Microsoft often appeared unable to keep up with the flood of exploits aimed against their operating systems, one can only imagine what the world will be like now their dirty laundry has been exposed to the light of day. Get ready for your twice-daily mandatory security patches, folks.

More Stories By James Turner

James Turner is president of Black Bear Software. James was formerly senior editor of Linux.SYS-CON.com and has also written for Wired, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. He is currently working on his third book on open source development.

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Most Recent Comments
muscle 03/23/04 01:44:42 AM EST

it's almost a ritual for me to run these patches. i've set up a cool tool to automate it across my company's platform

David Mohring 02/16/04 03:02:18 AM EST

Read Shattering Windows: Is a Disaster Lurking?
http://www.eweek.com/print_article/0,3048,a=109729,00.asp

The Shatter Attack exposes inherent vulnerabilities in the overall design of Microsoft's operating system application interface . Microsoft has known about this class of vulnerability since 1994.
http://security.tombom.co.uk/moreshatter.html
This has been more than long enough for Microsoft to develop a more secure alternative API and deprecate the unsecureable GDI interface. Instead Microsoft continued to develop applications using the unsecure APIs and promote their use with the Microsoft development tools for third party developers.

Bill Gates' Memo putting security as a top priorty in January 2002 ...
http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/4/23715.html
... was reminiscent of announcements of the old "five year plans" from the old Soviet and Maoist regimes.
http://groups.google.com/[email protected]

In May 2002, under oath at the antitrust hearing Jim Allchin, group vice president for platforms at Microsoft, stated that, because the Windows operating systems contained inherent flaws, disclosing the Windows operating system source code could damage national security and even threaten the U.S. war effort.
http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,3959,5264,00.asp

By the way, In February 2003, Microsoft signed a pact with Chinese officials to reveal the Windows operating system source code. Bill Gates even hinted that China will be privy to all, not just part, of the source code its government wished to inspect.
http://zdnet.com.com/2100-1104-990526.html

Dispite gaining more favored trading status with the USA, there remains many embargos over technology transfers which could put the US at future risk.
http://www.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2003/10/9/160700.shtml

Either Jim Allchin lied under oath, to prevent code revelation being any part of the settlement, OR the Microsoft corporation is behaving traitorously, by exposing national security issues to foreign governments.

The exposure of Microsoft source code put users at risk because of the inherent design and implimentation flaws built into the source code.

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