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MS tips its hand on WinXP protection system

Suddenly, the builds got a lot less crackable...

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Microsoft's adoring public in the unofficial beta distribution channel seems to be awarding null points to the latest escapee from Fort Redmond, WinXP build 2469. This might have something to do with 2469 being seriously harder to crack than previous efforts, but problems with DirectX seem to be turning them off as well.

2469 is the second interim build that's been issued to beta testers since WinXP beta 2, and would have leaked anyway, this being the way of all beta builds that Microsoft releases to external testers. This one however got out a lot faster via a leaked beta tester's ID, which was publiced on IRC channels and which gave an indeterminate number of people download rights from the beta site for seven hours. How many people downloaded, and what they had rights to, is not entirely clear. Microsoft says only a few, to not very much, but we're not too sure about that.

However few leaks there actually are, the next stage in the process is for the code to be passed around in ever-widening circles, and for the protection to be cracked - up until 2469, the latter took place in approximately 24-48 hours. But not this time around.

Microsoft, as we've noted in the past, didn't exactly stretch itself when devising the protection on the earlier builds, and although you were supposed to activate them within 14 days in order to keep running them, cracks and working keys circulated via IRC and published on a few web sites meant that anyone who had illicit code could easily get around that.

The importance of 2469 would therefore seem to us to be that it's the first build where Microsoft has given us some indication of how tough the protection in the shipping product will be. So this might be Product Activation, Release Candidate 1. According to Joolz of MSWinXP.net (which is currently running a Verdict on 2469 piece), the problem lies in something Microsoft's done to winlogon.exe. "The old crack was to replace that file with an older version. This no longer works. It blue screens during setup if you do that! Its winlogon.exe that handles the activation."

It's therefore taking the crackers longer to figure out how to get round this, and as 2469 is substantially less popular than 2465 (big negative is that the broken DirectX means you can't play movies full screen in Media Player), maybe they'll never bother.

The pull of RC1, which is due next month, will likely encourage them to redouble their efforts, if they haven't got around the new system before then, but then you have to wonder how many more shots Microsoft has in its locker.

Undoubtedly whatever protects WinXP when it ships will be cracked, but if protection systems get cracked beforehand, then surely Microsoft will be using tougher ones for the shipping code. So although the crackers aren't part of the beta, in a funny sort of way, they are, when it comes to protection. ®

Related links:
Tester ID leak leaves WinXP beta site wide open

SANS - Survey on application security programs

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