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Microsoft rebuts XP Net instability claims

It's all about stopping the malicious code in the first place

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Microsoft has officially responded to claims made by security consultant Steve Gibson that Windows XP threatens the stability of the Internet thanks to its inclusion on Unix sockets. These 'raw' sockets allow hackers to send thousands of spoof data packets from several PCs at once and launch unstoppable denial-of-service attacks against chosen Web sites.

Since XP is likely to be picked up by millions of technically illiterate consumers, the threat of heavy and easy DDoS attacks is enormous, claimed Gibson.

Not so, not so, cries Microsoft. In a posting on its TechNet site, it says that hostile code and not the XP socket implementation is the real threat to security. By hostile code it means the Trojan programs, etc that hackers slip onto unsuspecting people's computers that give them virtual control of the system. It is these programs that allow hackers to direct data packets at certain sites.

Microsoft accepts that the socket implementation will make packet spoofing easier than before but contends that a number of OSes already allow this and no great DoS revolution has occurred yet. It also says that if a hacker has access to a person's machine then he or she can already install drivers that will enable spoofing even on an OS that does not have Unix sockets.

Instead, we should be concentrating on preventing malicious code from getting on the machine in the first place and stopping it from working if it is already on the machine, Microsoft says. It's all a case of installing a burglar alarm but leaving the front door open.

That's a fair point, but then what is Microsoft doing to ensure that malicious code can't get onto and run on its OSes (because currently it's easier than pulling in a brothel)? This is where things are less persuasive. "Some" of the options available, says TechNet, are the Net connection firewall in XP "which effectively makes Windows XP users invisible on the Internet". And then, er, there's two service packs for Outlook and, er, you can configure the machine so certain types of script won't run.

So not much then. Shame really, because Microsoft had us up until that point.

The point is that sysadmins are, as a whole, delighted with the extra flexibility that Unix sockets will give them but Steve Gibson's point was that it will be individual machines owned by technically illiterate individuals that will make XP such a soft target.

And Microsoft is always playing catch-up with regard to security issues because they are so many people permanently hunting for holes and flaws in its software. Plus, how many average consumers go to the trouble of keeping up-to-date with patches, etc? How many of them even know they exist?

Microsoft is right that it's not Unix sockets that will cause the problem but then unless it provides a better defence to hostile code, it's not doing anyone any favours either. ®

Related Link

Microsoft's TechNet response

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Windows XP will make Internet unstable - top security expert

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