Security Options for Windows Vista

With Windows Vista set to be unleashed on the consumer market in about a week, there is going to be a need for security and antivirus products. Although Vista is the most secure version of the Windows operating system yet, that doesn’t mean it is impenetrable. Users still need to take basic security precautions. According to a report on Information Week, a number of vendors, including Microsoft, are providing free downloads or trial versions of their Vista-compatible security products. You can check out these products if you need antivirus and desktop security for your Vista PC:

Radio and TV Appearances

In recent months I have been contacted more frequently by the media, mostly as a result of marketing efforts for my latest book, Essential Computer Security. I was invited to guest on the IMI-TechTalk radio show at the end of November, and this past week I was invited to guest on the local Detroit Fox News morning show to discuss computer security with anchorman Alan Lee and promote my book.

Shaken, Not Stirred

If you wanted to test the security of your headquarters housed in a volcanic crater on a remote island, who better to check it out than James Bond? Microsoft apparently used similar logic to validate and test the security measures built in to the new Vista operating system. According to a report at the Washington Post, Microsoft called in the NSA. Tony W. Sager, the NSA’s chief of vulnerability analysis and operations group, is quoted as saying “Our intention is to help everyone with security.”

Both Microsoft and the NSA are a little hush-hush about the specifics of the help (spy organizations tend to work that way), but the article describes how the NSA used one group to be the ‘bad guys’ trying to break in and the other group acted as the ‘security administrators’ to protect the Vista network. The effort seems to be a win-win. Microsoft gets a product that has been run through the gauntlet and should be stronger and more secure as a result. The NSA gets an intimate look at the inner-workings of Vista and its security measures so that they can get a head start on developing ways to covertly penetrate or monitor the ‘bad guys’ (assuming Bush hasn’t already issued an un-Constitutional directive that they go ahead and just plant keystroke logging software on every computer in the United States…just in case).

In the end, everyone (except the bad guys) has a vested interest in ensuring Vista is secure. It will be used by hundreds of millions of home, corporate and government organization users. By virtue of its market share, a weak Windows operating system can adversely impact the economy, as companies and individuals spend time and money to clean up and repair compromised systems, or even national security, as the Windows operating system could provide an attack vector to affect the critical infrastructure of the country. Vista is by no means impervious to attack, but we shall see as time unfolds whether the NSA’s involvement has helped to make Vista a more secure operating system.

IE6 Vulnerable More Than 3/4 Of 2006

According to a study compiled by the Washington Post’s Brian Krebs, Internet Explorer 6 was vulnerable for 284 out of 365 days in 2006. That amounts to over 77% of the year. What does that mean? It means the for 3/4 of the year there were known vulnerabilities affecting Internet Explorer 6 for which no patch existed.

Some were fairly serious zero-day exploits that were being actively exploited in the wild while users waited for an update from Microsoft. Others were less serious, but were still left vulnerable, mostly due to the nature of the monthly Security Bulletin and patch release schedule that Microsoft uses. A flaw that is discovered the day after “Patch Tuesday” will most likely remain unpatched for an entire month until the next “Patch Tuesday”. By contrast, Krebs found that the Firefox browser was only vulnerable for 9 days, and IE7 was too new to have any substantial data for this year’s survey.

The pro-Firefox, Microsoft-bashing crowd will jump all over this. You can see it in the comments on Krebs’ article. I fall into the camp that believes that IE is targeted because of its market share as much as the quality of the code. Firefox or Opera may, in fact, be superior from a security standpoint, but neither is impervious and if they had 85% of the web browser market share we wouldn’t be so hyper-focused on the weaknesses of Internet Explorer (and neither would the malware authors). Still, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture and Microsoft should take notice and seek to rectify the issue for IE7 and for 2007. You can read Krebs’ complete article here: Internet Explorer Unsafe for 284 Days in 2006

Data Backup For Home PC Users

Companies understand the importance of data. Hardware and software can be replaced, but lost data can’t. Those companies that don’t truly understand the value of consistently backing up critical data are probably mandated to do so anyway by one of the various regulatory requirements such as Sarbanes-Oxley or HIPAA. Companies also have administrators that are paid to be expert in managing data and they are tasked with performing the backups. That is great for companies. What about home computer users?

Computers crash. Malware attacks. There are a wide variety of potential causes for losing data on a home computer. Years worth of digital photographs, income tax and investment information tracked in personal financial software and other such personal data is irreplaceable if lost in some sort of hard drive or data catastrophe. There are many programs available, including the backup utility built into Microsoft Windows, which you can use to back up your data. The question is- what do you need to back up? If you have 200Gb worth of data on your hard drive, the backup could take forever and be very cumbersome to manage. However, it is probable that only a small fraction of that data is truly critical or irreplaceable and needs to be backed up. The backup will be easier to manage and more efficient to perform if you pare it down to only the data that really needs to be backed up.

Microsoft has created a brief guide for home computer users to help them identify the files, or types of files, that are most likely to contain critical or personal information that needs to be backed up. For more guidance, read How to decide what data to back up

Vista Flaw Discovered

Less than a month from its official release to corporate customers, a vulnerability was already discovered that affects Vista. According to Microsoft and others, the vulnerability can only be exploited if an attacker already has access to the system, meaning they would need to be physically sitting in front of the computer or have already compromised through some other means that would provide remote access.

According to F-Secure’s Mikko Hypponen, “The bottom line is you couldn’t use a vulnerability like this to write a worm or hack a Vista system remotely. It only has historical significance in that it’s the first reported vulnerability that also affects Vista. It’s a nonevent in other ways.”

The media of course jumps all over the news, stating repeatedly how this is reportedly Microsoft’s most secure platform ever. I think most would agree that it is, in fact, the most secure yet. However, “most secure” and “impenetrable” have entirely different meanings. There will still be flaws. Hopefully there will be fewer and hopefully those that are found will not be the type that allow an attacker to gain complete control of vulnerable systems remotely or the type that are easily exploited via a worm or other malware code. But, I am sure that this will by no means be the last Vista vulnerability we hear about.