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Hotmail always-on crypto breaks Microsoft's own apps

Redmond's answer to Firesheep not ready for prime time

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For the first time in its 13-year history, Microsoft's Hotmail comes with the ability to protect email sessions with secure sockets layer encryption from start to finish.

It's the same always-on encryption Google Mail has offered for more than two years. And it comes with some pretty extreme limitations – namely the inability to protect email that's downloaded using Microsoft apps including Outlook Hotmail Connector (required to use Outlook with Hotmail) and Windows Live Mail. But to hear Microsoft describe the new feature, you'd think it was a cure for the common cold.

“As you saw, with the recent additions of several security features to Hotmail, including Single-Use codes and new account recovery options, building towards the most secure webmail experience is very importance to us,” a spokeswoman, who asked that her name not be published, wrote in an email. “We will continue to incorporate leading-edge security features to better protect our customers. With today's addition of full-session SSL encryption to Hotmail, we are delivering even more secure Hotmail sessions.”

Microsoft's online services have long played second fiddle to those of Google, and judging from Tuesday's announcement, security is no exception. Not only is Gmail's HTTPS encryption turned on by default, it also works flawlessly with a variety of email apps such as Thunderbird, Eudora, and even Microsoft's Outlook. We asked Microsoft to explain why its own SSL doesn't work with its own apps, and whether it might work with other email clients, but all we got was the above-quoted marketing fluff.

That's unfortunate, because unsecured email has been the elephant in the room for more than a decade, making Hotmail users who check their email from public Wi-Fi vulnerable to snoops. For most Reg readers this is old news. But for readers of mainstream publications, it only sank in two weeks ago, with the advent of Firesheep, a Firefox plugin that makes stealing authentication cookies from Facebook, Twitter and, yes, Hotmail, a snap.

Enter Microsoft with a watered-down solution that's certainly better than nothing. But given the fanfare with which it was announced, one wonders if it will give Hotmail users a false sense of security. And that's not much of a selling point, now is it? ®

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