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Critics Pile on Microsoft Over Security

Critics continue to pile on Microsoft after damaging worms and viruses slammed Windows operating systems worldwide in August and September.

Two massive security sideswipes hit Windows in August: the extremely successful mass-mailing worm Sobig.F and the Blaster worm that exploited a security flaw in DCOM RPC, affecting most supported versions of Windows. In early September, Microsoft warned that the underlying flaw that allowed Blaster could also permit other attacks even on machines that had already been patched. A new patch was issued.

Shortly after Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer admitted that his company was "embarrassed" by the flaws that Blaster took advantage of, a group of seven security experts released a report asserting that the ubiquity of Microsoft's software worldwide has created a major security risk, similar to the dangers in agriculture of planting only one strain of crop.

Despite its valid but well-worn premise, the report created a firestorm due to its timing after Blaster and Sobig.F, the controversy surrounding its distribution by the frequent Microsoft critics at the Computer and Communications Industry Association and the subsequent firing of its lead author, Dan Geer. Geer lost his job as CTO for @stake, a security firm that counts Microsoft as a client.

This week, two parties followed up on last week's reports with blasts of their own. A California lawyer filed a class-action lawsuit on Tuesday against Microsoft, claiming that unfair business practices by Microsoft combined with shoddy work on the security side have led to a situation where its market-dominant software is vulnerable to viruses capable of triggering "massive, cascading failures" worldwide. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and an injunction.

The lawsuit also claims that Microsoft's security warnings are too complex to be understood by the general public and serve to tip off hackers on exploitable flaws in the operating system.

"Microsoft's eclipsing dominance in desktop software has created a global security risk," the Reuters news agency reported the lawsuit as saying. "As a result of Microsoft's concerted effort to strengthen and expand its monopolies by tightly integrating applications with its operating systems … the world's computer networks are now susceptible to massive, cascading failures."

Meanwhile, the U.K.-based digital risk assessment firm mi2g on Thursday compared the economic damage from malware targeting Microsoft systems in 2003 to the cost to the global insurance industry due to the 2001 terrorist attacks.

According to mi2g, the 2001 terror attacks cost the insurance industry between $55 billion and $70 billion. The security firm, which does its own economic impact calculations, contends that the costs of Sobig, Blaster and the recent Swen worm, contributed to economic damage of more than $64.5 billion in the third quarter of this year. That's up from $10 billion in Q2 and $5 billion in Q1. The firm contends that even with the high estimated cost, global computer networks actually got off easy. Neither Blaster nor Sobig, for example, tried to delete data or aggressively damage systems.

"Since 9/11 priorities have shifted to fighting the war on terrorism and warding off an energy crisis. However, at present, the single biggest visible point for a global crisis is bug-ridden software that could crash large swathes of the computing eco-system on which we increasingly rely," DK Matai, mi2g's executive chairman, said in a statement.

Trying to spin the news back in their favor slightly, Microsoft officials hinted this week that major changes to the company's security and patching strategy would be announced next week, presumably at a partner conference in New Orleans.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.