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Microsoft’s Happy Bugfinder

Microsoft’s Michael Howard is a big-time optimist who wears a “Mr. Happy” t-shirt to work that would no doubt draw nasty snickers from Microsoft security critics. But the senior security program manager knows full well you can’t write perfectly secure code, and that all software will eventually fall victim to a hacker. “The nature of security is man versus man,” Howard says. “The opposition wants to take you down.”

Click here to view Figure 1.

“Software will eventually fail because when you ship it, that software represents a subset of the best security practices of the day, and research is ongoing,” he says.

Howard, 42, studies vulnerabilities in Microsoft software, with Windows Vista as his main focus during the past few years. He points to the recent .ANI bug in Vista. (See Microsoft Repatches Its .ANI Emergency Patch.) “We had scoured the code but didn’t see this,” he says. “But other defenses in Vista protected Vista users” from the bug, says Howard, who recently co-authored the book Writing Secure Code for Windows Vista.

Despite critics picking apart Vista’s built-in security features such as user access control, Howard says he’s excited about what Vista’s security represents for Microsoft. (See Vista Cruising and Endpoint Security: Six Questions to Ask Before You Buy.) And he’s confident Vista will have far fewer bugs than XP, and soon may have the data to prove it: “I have access to very raw data that hasn’t been triaged yet. But every few days, another [bug] bounces off Vista.”

Microsoft’s recent security bulletin on the .ANI vulnerability in Windows and Vista, for example, was actually a small victory for Vista, he says: “If you were running Vista, you were protected from all those exploits out there,” even though there was a coding bug in the OS. (Even so, Howard says users should apply the patch anyway.)

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