Vista safer than predecessor but still vulnerable to attacks

Microsoft's much-touted security enhancements in Windows Vista have made it a safer operating system than previous versions of Windows but it is still open to attack from legacy malicious code.

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Microsoft's much-touted security enhancements in Windows Vista have made it a safer operating system than previous versions of Windows but it is still open to attack from legacy malicious code.

That is the major finding of a research study by Symantec that dissected security in the new operating system. Symantec released the results of its study yesterday.

The goal was to determine whether new security technologies in Vista could protect against risks posed by legacy malicious code, said Ollie Whitehouse, a member of Symantec's advanced threat research team. All of the tests were performed on a Vista system running in a 32-bit environment using samples of existing worms, viruses, Trojan horses, keyloggers and other samples from Symantec's malicious code library.

What the results show is that although the percentage of successful attacks against Vista using existing malicious code is low, "there are threats that can execute and survive within the new Vista security model," he said. Because malicious code writers don't have to make many changes to get their code to run successfully against Vista, "it demonstrates to us that the knowledge to develop malicious code" against the operating system already exists, he said.

Symantec's research is useful and "injects some realism" into Microsoft's claims about Vista security, said Andrew Jaquith, an analyst at Yankee Group. "On the other hand, you've got to acknowledge that there is quite a bit of self-interest involved here in Symantec trying to show their tools are still relevant in the new world. To me this is both enlightening and entertaining."

Symantec's findings are based on a study of various new security enhancements in Vista including generic exploit mitigation technologies to protect against common classes of vulnerabilities such as buffer and heap overflows, kernel protection technologies such as driver signing and PatchGuard, and Microsoft's User Account Control (UAC), which is supposed to reduce risks by forcing users to run in a restricted environment and not as administrators.

Symantec's results showed that even with such technologies, about 3 per cent of existing back doors and about 4 per cent of existing keyloggers can successfully be installed on a Vista system and survive a reboot without any modifications to the code. In addition, 4 per cent of existing mass mailers and 2 per cent of Trojan horses and spyware programs tested successfully infected Vista, Whitehouse said.

No kernel-based tool kits however were able to penetrate Vista's defences – largely because of the limited privileges that UAC imposes on users by default, Symantec noted. However, the kernel can be penetrated if an attacker were able to elevate the privilege level to that of an administrator, at least in a 32-bit Vista environment, according to Symantec.

"The kernel integrity protection mechanisms that are present on 64-bit Windows Vista can only be described as a bump in the road," Symantec said. "That is, while these technologies may slow down a hacker, they do not provide a meaningful defence against a determined attacker."

"Much has been done with Vista to improve its security, " Whitehouse said. But the efforts are mainly focused on threats to the operating system itself, even as attackers have begun focusing on other things such as email, instant messaging and web-based attacks, he said.

"I think malware writers are going to take a careful look at Vista's weaknesses, " Jaquith said. For example, the backward compatibility that Microsoft has had to integrate into the operating system, which was offered to consumers starting on 30 January, presents a potential soft spot. Similarly, new communications protocols supported by Vista – and the fact that Microsoft has rewritten the entire TCP/IP stack around the operating system – are potential targets for malware researchers.

"That said, we have always believed the measures Microsoft has taken in Vista is going to make it much harder for malware writers to create damage," he said.

Russ Humphreys, Microsoft product manager for Vista security, said the company is "evaluating" the information provided by Symantec, particularly issues in the operating system's GS Flag technology and its address space layout randomisation feature.

"It is important to note that none of the security features in Windows Vista, either individually or collectively, are intended as a 'silver bullet' solution to the problem of computer security," Humphreys said in an emailed comment. "Instead, our defence-in-depth approach makes Windows Vista far more difficult to attack than any previous version of Windows, making it more secure." He said that Vista reflects a "right balance" between usability and security.

"This report does not properly address the fact that many of the Window Vista security technologies have numerous options that allow for a user to make their own judgments as to their need for security balanced against usability," he said.

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