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Microsoft opened up a new line of communication to its customers on Tuesday, pledging to provide more authoritative information about incidents involving, and changes to, the company's products that could affect customers' security.

The information will be distributed as needed in the form of security advisories, which will be released as needed. Potential topics of the advisories include guidance on publicly disclosed, but yet unpatched, vulnerabilities, notification when code is released to exploit a software flaw, and information on Microsoft updates that are not security patches but which do provide some security benefits.

"We have gotten feedback from customers that want us to provide really authoritative guidance on issues," said Stephen Toulouse, security program manager for Microsoft's Security Response Center. "The goal of then is to provide useful information on a pretty broad variety of security incidents in a timely manner."

The first of the company's advisories, released on Tuesday, offer guidance on how users can prevent an attack that uses the Windows Media Player's digital rights management features to spoof legitimate programs. Another advisory suggests ways for Exchange administrators to make address harvesting attacks more difficult.

While the release of the new advisories coincided with the company's scheduled monthly updates, Toulouse stressed that future advisories will be published as needed. Also unlike bulletins, the advisories will not be rated for the seriousness of the security incident that they might address.

"There is such a broad amount of things that we will providing advisories for," Toulouse said. "There is no single good rating system for that broad class of information."

Overall, security experts gave the move a thumbs up, saying that more information about Microsoft product security will help customers protect their networks.

"It is a good idea on their part and it's sorely due," said David Aitel, CEO and principal researcher of security firm Immunity. "You think about how open source works, you have full and complete understanding of your risk. That doesn't happen with commercial software. This helps close that gap."

Moreover, if Microsoft can weigh in quickly on the specific issues regarding Windows security broached in security discussion groups, it could reduce uncertainty, said Alan Paller, director of research for the SANS Institute, a network-administration and security training organization.

"If you can get more authoritative information, you feel better acting on it," he said. "And the best place to get that information is from the organization that created the software, because they have the best idea of what the ramifications will be."

The advisories add to the increasing number of ways that Microsoft distributes security information about its products. The company uses monthly bulletins to send out patches and information about those fixes. Customers can subscribe to a notification service and RSS feeds to get security information and monthly webcasts cover the highlights of the security patches just released.

"We don't want to give people information fatigue, but at the same time we don't want to give people too little information," he said.

However, Paller hoped that publishing information will not be considered a solution to a security problem, a type of thinking that he called the "we fixed that" syndrome.

"The downside of bulletins and advisories is that there is a tendency to underplay problems, because software makers believe organizations should have already switched to their latest software update or workaround," Paller said. "There is a presumptuousness that the world should be doing everything that they are saying."

The lesson: More information is better, but software makers still need to fix security problems before they release their products, he said. ®

Copyright © 2005, SecurityFocus logo

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