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Microsoft: Mystery bug blocks Syrian secure Hotmail

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Microsoft is blaming a mystery bug for preventing access to the encrypted version of Hotmail, denying that it deliberately blocked access to the service in Syria.

On Friday afternoon, the company told The Reg that Hotmail users who had already enabled the HTTPS version of the popular email service were still able to use it. Only Hotmailers trying to turn on HTTPS for the first time in certain countries and languages were being blocked, Microsoft said.

People trying to connect were greeted with the message: "Your Windows Live ID can't use HTTPS automatically because this feature is not available for your account type."

Microsoft said it still doesn't know what caused the bug, but it has been resolved and the company is investigating the cause. "We do not intentionally limit support by region or geography and this issue was not restricted to any specific region of the world. We apologize for any inconvenience to our customers that this may have caused," a Microsoft spokesperson said.

The company said users in the Bahamas, Cayman Islands, and Fiji were also affected.

Microsoft made HTTPS available for Hotmail inbox, calendar, and contacts in November of last year.

The issue was first flagged by a Syrian user who posted a screen grab to TwitPic here. That sparked concern across the Tweet-o-sphere that Microsoft had blocked HTTPS in some countries or regions.

The user is a computer engineering student apparently based at the University of Jordan, in Amman. On Friday, Security forces in Syria reportedly shot and killed protesters in the cities of Dara'a and Sanamein who had been demanding freedom, food, and jobs. There were protests in the capital Damascus too, as part of a nationwide call for change called "day of dignity".

Security and privacy researcher Christopher Soghoian suggested HTTPS was being blocked not just in Syria, but in Egypt too. Soghoian, graduate fellow at the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research in Washington DC, said on Twitter that he'd set his Hotmail country to Egypt by default and that HTTPS had been prohibited. He then set his country to Israel and HTTPS by default was allowed. He tweeted: "Hotmail HTTPS feature seems to depend on country set in preferences... not the IP you are connecting from."

Microsoft introduced HTTPS in Hotmail to protect users log-ins, emails and other information from hackers and other unwanted scrutiny. Also, in November, SkyDrive, Photos, Docs, and Devices pages all started to use SSL encryption.

HTTPS was not extended to Outlook Hotmail Connector, Windows Live Mail, and Windows Live for Windows Mobile 6.5 - and older - and Symbian phones. ®

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