Microsoft will release an enterprise tool that offers some of the security features in the new Office 2007 suite to protect users still running the older Office 2003 applications, a company researcher said.
Third-party security professionals applauded the move, calling it a "fantastic" idea and a "very positive" step.
The tool has been named Microsoft Office Isolated Conversion Environment (MOICE), and should put a stop to the kind of attacks that rely on malformed Word or Excel or PowerPoint documents to hijack specifically-targeted corporate PCs. These attacks, which began early last year and ramped up dramatically during the summer, have continued into 2007.
The concept, said David LeBlanc, co-author of the just-released book Writing Secure Code for Vista (Microsoft Press) and one of the proponents of Microsoft's Security Development Lifecycle initiative, uses new security properties of Office 2007 document formats to protect Office 2003. "When we converted a [Office 2003] exploit document to the new Office 2007 'Metro' format, it would either fail the conversion, emit a nonexploitable file, or the converter itself would crash," said LeBlanc on a his company blog.
That discovery set wheels in motion. "If we could preprocess documents coming from untrusted sources from the older  format to protect the new  format, and then get an older version of Office to use its converter to read in the new file format, the customer is going to end up safer," LeBlanc said.
Because the process requires two document conversions -- the first from old format to new, then another from new back to old -- Microsoft acknowledged that MOICE won't be the choice for everyone. "We're also stripping out things like macros and VBA projects, [so] sure, it's a big hit, but this is a security feature," said LeBlanc.
Joshua Edwards, the technical product manager for Office, seconded that in an interview last week. "It's designed for organisations or companies that have higher security needs, like financial services. Users will see a delay in opening the file."
MOICE does more than just translate document formats, however -- or even dump potentially dangerous components such as macros, said LeBlanc.