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Microsoft yesterday announced the Government Security Program, an initiative intended to provide governments and agencies with "controlled access... subject to certain licensing restrictions" to Microsoft source code. The announcement was accompanied by great amazement and astonishment in the public prints. Remarkably, this "unprecedented move" (Reuters) looks not entirely dissimilar to the Microsoft Government Shared Source Licensing Program, which has been available (to general disinterest) for some considerable time.

So tell us why the GSP is not a respray into security livery, being spun to a ludicrous extent by the Redmond marketing machine. The earlier program, granted, has a more limited list of eligible countries, whereas the GSP is apparently aimed at everyone, aside from the usual suspects. But there are hedges to this that'll likely bring the numbers down. For example, a country's ability to participate will to some extent depend on that country's attitude to intellectual property, sniffs Microsoft.

You could therefore see the GSP as providing Bill and the execs with a valuable carrot to induce change in attitudes to intellectual property. Russia is already signed up, as is NATO, and Craig Mundie says countries like Brazil, India and China are eligible. Of these, only Brazil is listed under the previous programme.

Ah, we remember the times when the US would swipe European computer dealers selling DEC kit to the Soviet Union, fly them to the States and put them in prison for a very long time. But times change.

Aside from eligibility, which would surely have broadened steadily under the New World Order anyway, and the liberal use of the S word, there seems little difference between the Government Shared Source Program and the Government Security Program. Companies, government agencies and educational institutions could already sign up to look at Microsoft source code, and one presumes that security would be one of the things they'd have in mind as they did so.

Ah, but says Craig Mundie: "The program is not designed for government agencies at a state, or provincial, or local level. Nor is it aimed at government agencies that require source-code access for product support or development purposes unrelated to security matters. The needs of those agencies would likely be served best by the Shared Source Initiative program." It's therefore about who you are and what you intend.

So you get kicked off the program if you start talking about anything other than security? And if you're not a national government agency. But more countries are eligible for the security version of shared source than for the lesser variant? Some tidying required here, we think.

The repackaging of government shared source does however have some cute aspects to it. Simply by presenting a Microsoft software-based security program to governments, Microsoft is promoting itself a little further up the food chain. Sure, governments use Microsoft software, but for mission-critical national security? Not a lot, not yet. And if a government is using Microsoft software to any great extent, then it's going to feel kind of compelled to join in the GSP, which is free. Wouldn't it be negligent not to?

But, if a government has set up a group with the specific brief of working with Microsoft staff and Microsoft source, ask yourself what that group is likely to come up with. It's not evaluating the security of Microsoft software with a view to acceptance or rejection (probably not, unless the government is as sneaky as Microsoft), it's working to improve the software's security with reference to deployments within its own government, and it will become proficient in the production and deployment of more secure Microsoft systems in government. What's it going to recommend, having acquired this knowledge? Trojan Source, you could say.

Microsoft will apparently be giving online access to a strangely precise 97 per cent of the source, while the balance, which is really secret, and we don't know what it is, will only be available at Microsoft's offices in Redmond. The company, according to Steve Lohr of the NYT, will also be allowing governments to substitute their own security features for those in Windows. The significance of this, however, depends on what this actually means, and the level at which they're allowed to do it. We would not be at all surprised if this turned out to be yet another sales tool, perhaps for Palladium. ®

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