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Security is the big question, and the answer is... er, privacy policies and smart cards. These, at least, were the only obvious concrete suggestions Bill Gates had to put forward when he opened Microsoft's prestige Safenet 2000 conference in Redmond yesterday. And as he doesn't seem to have mentioned the cookie defender patch for IE 5.5 Microsoft hurriedly invented earlier this year, it's not entirely clear whether we're going forward or backwards on the privacy front.

The first leg of the Big News was that Microsoft is to incorporate "a new protocol... into beta versions of Internet Explorer 6.0 that allows users to define the information they don’t mind sharing over the Internet and informs them when Web sites want additional information." This new protocol is none other than the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P), and effectively Bill was just announcing that Microsoft was going to support it.

But Microsoft's demo of this support suggests that there will be more fluff than substance in the company's execution of P3P. P3P is intended to provide a mechanism for Web sites to communicate a privacy policy to a browser, and for the browser to act accordingly. The site's policy will tell the browser what it's doing and why, and the browser can accept or reject cookies depending on how the user has defined the settings.

All Microsoft showed, however, was the browser having its overall security/privacy settings cranked, so the two demo users, bill and safebill, could apparently either accept cookies from all sites in accordance with a general browser policy (thus allowing bill to shop anywhere), or refuse them all, thus presumably leaving safebill significantly Web shopping challenged.

Certain Norwegian-developed browsers already allow you to decide which sites you trust and which ones you don't, of course, but it's a moot question whether or not Microsoft will ever go this far. The company's philosophy seems more one of having users place broad-brush trust in collections of sites (especially those run by Microsoft and friends) while producing noisy PR about how concerned it is with security.

One bottom line worth noting is what Microsoft product manager for Internet Technologies Michael Wallent described as the "default policy we're going to be advancing in the browser... if a Web site has a policy, they translate it into the P3P model and they give users notice and choice about the information practices of that site, then we will allow their cookie interaction."

Philosophically this fits with the differentiation Microsoft advanced between first and third party cookies earlier this year. If a Web site has P3P enabled, then the installed defaults for IE 6 will allow it to cookie users as it pleases, unless the user bothers to change the defaults. Microsoft presents a sop to the privacy lobbyists by saying IE 6 will be able to download alternate P3P policy sets from privacy sites, but the bottom line seems to be not much change here, lots of noise, and business as usual.

Campus of cards?
The second bit of meat Bill had to offer was possibly even slighter. Microsoft for some years now has extolled the virtues of card-based security, but it now becomes clearer how far (not very) the company has got with this. Network administrators ("the people who have the privilege to create and delete user accounts") at Redmond now have to use smart cards to log on to their workstations. They have to take the cards with them wherever they go, first because it would be a "violation of company policy" if they didn't (oh dear), and second (more realistically) because they need the cards to get back into the building.

The sad bit about this initiative is that elsewhere in his speech Bill bashed on about the importance of clearly establishing a user's identity in a world where we'll have seamless access from anywhere on any device. Having a specific group of users establishing their identity on some devices in some circumstances really doesn't sound like much of a breakthrough. And what happens when somebody loses the credit card with all their ID on it? Especially when the company (hello Microsoft) has a campus area wireless network. Card-based access probably isn't the solution at all, and may instead turn out to be the next big security breach.

Speaking of which, Bill produced an unintentionally revealing footnote on Microsoft campus security by describing how, until relatively recently, the Microsoft human resources group had its own private network. "They were [so] concerned enough about the sensitivity of the information that they were sending across the network that they had gone to a significant expense and some inconvenience in terms of their general access to go and make sure that network traffic didn’t go on the standard backbone." What does this tell you about Redmond network security, and Microsoft's confidence in it? ®

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