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Microsoft promises Passport redux with ‘InfoCards’

Saving Howard Ting

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RSA A lesser publication might suggest it fitting that Microsoft’s Chairman Bill Gates began his speech today at the RSA security conference with a joke. “I am really happy to be here at RSA,” Gates said. “My other invitation was to go quail hunting with Dick Cheney. I’m feeling very safe right now.”

(An interesting crack for a man who hands out tons of money to Republican politicians.)

This quip garnered a fair amount of applause from the RSA crowd here in San Jose. Gates, however, spent the next hour trying to avoid the usual rounds of snickers and giggles that accompany any Microsoft security presentation. It was Gates the straight man all the way.

“I think we are making progress, but it is a very big challenge to make sure security is not the thing that holds us back,” Gates said.

Much of Gates’ security pitch centered on advances customers should see in the upcoming Windows Vista operating system and complementary “Longhorn” Server. In addition, Microsoft plans to go after the multi-factor authentication market with force by making its OS, database and identity management packages work well with technology such as smart cards and trusted web sites.

For example, Microsoft presented one demo in which a poor chap – Howard Ting in the Windows Server Group – lost his laptop, smart card and cell phone at the same time. Instead of being defeated by his incompetence, Ting turned to Microsoft’s tools for help.

In the make believe demo world, Ting’s manager tossed him a one-time password, which the employee used to set up his own smart card at a Microsoft campus kiosk. Ting entered the password and had Microsoft’s Certificate Lifecycle Manager, which is in beta today, retrieve certificates from Active Directory and place them on the card.

“In the past, you had to wait for an hour or even several hours while someone manually provisioned the card,” Ting said.

Next, Ting popped the smart card into an old laptop. Security tools in Vista communicated with Longhorn Server, notifying Ting that his laptop did not have the software updates needed to bring the system in line with Microsoft's network security standards. (The laptop must have been at least a week old.) Using Microsoft’s NAP (Network Access Protection), the laptop automatically retrieved the updates in a quarantine mode and gave Ting access to the network. This allowed Ting to start working again without needing to bother an administrator.

BoFHs everywhere rejoiced.

In the last step, Ting visited a cell phone seller’s web site, which recognized his identity automatically. (More on how this was done later.) Without entering a user name or password, the site authenticated Ting and picked out a phone that matches Microsoft’s spending policy for such a device. Presto! Ting was back in action.

“Thanks to Microsoft my day just got a little bit better,” he said.

We’ve all had the same thought so many times.

This heartwarming tale highlighted how Microsoft’s upcoming technology can help out the average user. Even if you are a total dolt, you can just keep clicking and recover from total catastrophe. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of, although Gates insisted such technology is just around the corner.

Another major item Microsoft pushed is the concept code-named InfoCards. These online profiles should provide easier log-ons to various kinds of web sites.

You can think of an InfoCard as a type of virtual business card. Each card contains basic information about you such as your name and contact information. Thing is, you have more than one InfoCard, and each one contains different levels of data.

When, for example, you travel to Amazon.com, an InfoCard window will pop up to ask if you’d like to log-on to the site. If you’ve already created a username and password in the past, you simply click “OK.” The InfoCard handles the log-on without requiring you to reenter the information. This no doubt sounds familiar to anyone who lets their browsers manage usernames and passwords on certain sites.

Higher-level InfoCards then handle more important tasks. One of your InfoCards might have your social security number stored, and this card might require a PIN before being using on banking sites, for example.

This seems to be Microsoft’s Passport replacement. Instead of storing everything in one place, Microsoft has used a divide and conquer approach to make you feel safer. And your data is stored by an identity broker or "in the cloud" instead of on a Microsoft server.

The InfoCard software runs in a separate, secure compartment from the main operating system, meaning it should be inaccessible to most malicious web sites and script kiddies.

“InfoCard will be delivered as part of WinFX, Microsoft's managed code programming model, and will support Windows Internet Explorer 7 on Windows Vista, Windows XP Service Pack 2, and Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1 and R2,” Microsoft said.

With Vista, users should find that Microsoft has taken security to “another level,” Gates said. He pointed to a type of multi-tiered browsing scenario where users can set what types of functions they want t work in certain surfing modes. The safe mode might, for example, not allow Active X.

Microsoft will also finally turn off admin mode for most functions in Vista. Users will be able to perform basic tasks in a “standard user” or “protected” mode. Anyone not using a Microsoft operating system will already be well acquainted with this idea.

Vista will also include smart card support and have tools for preventing people from accessing your data if you lose a laptop.

Lastly, Microsoft announced the “availability of the second beta of Windows Defender for existing Windows systems, which includes several enhancements and new functionality that reflects ongoing input from customers. The free beta download is now available for customers running Windows XP, Windows 2000 and Windows Server 2003.”

Of course, the security panacea Microsoft presents at these shindigs never seems to materialize. Anyone watching the demos could see a future full of even more annoying queries and requests doled out by Windows. Clippy may be welcomed back with open arms after you’ve faced InfoCard hell. ®

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