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RSA Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is grateful to the independent security researchers who routinely punch holes in his company's software. Really.

"We really appreciate the relationship we have with these security experts," said Gates in a keynote address at the RSA Conference in San Francisco on Tuesday. But, "the unfortunate fact is the people who have the malicious intent take that information... and use it, particularly in an environment in which we haven't been able to keep the systems up-to-date in a wide scale way," he added.

In a talk that comes a little over two years after he launched Microsoft's "Trustworthy Computing" initiative, Gates spent the better part of an hour talking shop with the computer security industry and its customers, unveiling several new initiatives and showing off new features infused into the upcoming Windows XP Service Pack 2, now in beta release.

The XP update will include an enhanced version of the Windows Firewall that will be switched on by default. When a program attempts to use the Internet for the first time, a pop-up will warn the user and give them the option of approving or permanently blocking the application's Internet access. Service Pack 2 will also include a new "Windows Security Center" that tells users whether or not their firewall and anti-virus software is operating.

Behavior blocking

The company's long-term plans are more ambitious. Worm-killing functionality called "behavior blocking" is slated for next year, and will work, Gates promised, by spotting anomalous behavior by the operating system or applications. Using last year's Blaster worm as an example, Gates said the technology would notice that Windows' RPC service had begun downloading malicious code, and would intervene to prevent it. "The system will truly know what actions are allowed by applications and operating systems," said Gates.

Another technology will protect Windows users who haven't installed the latest security patches by disabling the programs or services made vulnerable by the lapse, said Gates.

Coding Aids

On the supply side of the vulnerability cycle, Gates said the next version of Microsoft's Visual Studio, code named "Whidbey," would include tools to better support secure coding, including one that makes it easier for programmers to write applications that don't require administrative access, and a utility that would spot some risky coding constructs.

The chairman rounded off the talk by describing a wide range of other Microsoft security programs, ranging from an "e-mail Caller I.D." aimed at combating spam, to a self-validating tamper-resistant I.D. card developed by the company's research arm. Along the way he touched on Palladium, touted the security benefits of the company's Shared Source Initiative, announced two new industry partnerships, and blamed the rash of worms and viruses exploiting Microsoft code on the diabolical ingenuity of the computer underground. "The people who attack these systems are getting more and more sophisticated," he said.

Measured against that increased sophistication, Microsoft is improving its security record, said Gates. He noted that in the first 300 days following its release, Microsoft Windows Server 2003 had only eight serious security advisories, while Windows 2000 had 38, Gates said. "Clearly there's more to do, but that is one of the metrics that shows us that we're definitely on the right track," said Gates. "I'm very optimistic about this, even though there's many years of work ahead of us."

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