Opening Windows Source Code Could Improve Security
Microsoft Technical Fellow Mark Russinovich raised a few eyebrows at ChefCon earlier this month, when he aired the possibility of Windows becoming an open source program.
Sure, Microsoft’s attitude toward the open source movement has mellowed over the years, but the prospect of the company rubbing elbows with the likes of Linux overloads the imagination.
Still, there could be real benefits to making Windows an open source operating system — among them, better security.
“If they’re talking about open sourcing the modern version, or pieces of it, it would help security tremendously, because people could look at it and find vulnerabilities,” said Morey Haber, vice president of technology forBeyondTrust.
There initially would be a spike in vulnerabilities, he said, but they would be patched quickly and the code would get better.
Chances are Microsoft won’t open source the latest version of the operating system, but “I wouldn’t put it past them to put out an older version or a core version as open source,” Haber told TechNewsWorld.
How Windows is open sourced will determine how beneficial the move will be to the software’s security, said Mike Taylor, lead developer for Rook Security.
“There would be a benefit if the entire stack were released, because that would allow people to more clearly examine the code and look for insecurities,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“The downside to that is you’re creating an uncounted number of Zero Day vulnerabilities. Having more eyes on the code will help to address those vulnerabilities, especially since researchers could contribute code that would fix those vulnerabilities,” Taylor pointed out.
“So yes, more vulnerabilities may be discovered,” he said, “but they could potentially be addressed more quickly.”
That could help avoid situations where zealous bug hunters disclose security holes before they’re patched by a vendor, as Google researchers did earlier this year.
More Good Eyes Than Bad
Google gives software vendors 90 days to fix a flaw after reporting it to them. It recently notified Microsoft of a vulnerability in Windows 8.1 and began the countdown. Microsoft came up with a fix for the problem before the end of the 90-day period, but it wanted to release it on the next Patch Tuesday, which fell after the arbitrary 90-day deadline. Google refused to delay action and released information on the flaw two days before its fix was released.
“In an open source environment you don’t have that kind of structure,” Taylor said. “When someone finds a vulnerability, the code to fix that can be pushed immediately into the quality assurance process.”
That can be done only if an open source community has an unobstructed view into Windows, however.
“If you get a full view of the source code of something that’s open source, you’re going to have a higher likelihood of finding vulnerabilities because you can see what’s going on under the hood,” said Matt Johansen, senior manager for the Threat Research Center at WhiteHat Security.
Without a clear view into a program’s code, researchers are forced to use techniques like “fuzz testing,” he explained.
Fuzz testing involves injecting junk inputs into software to see what happens.
“It involves a whole lot of guessing and takes up a whole lot of time,” Johansen told TechNewsWorld.
“Open source really opens up the number of people who have the resources and know-how who can find vulnerabilities,” he added, “but the real added benefit is that there are more good guys with their eyes on the code than there would be if it weren’t open source.”
Not a Security Blanket
An open source version of Windows also could create security problems. For example, various distros of Windows could pop up.
“We would probably end up with problems similar to Linux and Android, where we’d have fragmentation and then unique vulnerabilities based on that,” BeyondTrust’s Haber said.
In addition, while the “many eyes” approach can catch vulnerabilities before they become hacker havens, “we’ve seen recently in the case of OpenSSL and other open source software, this doesn’t always work,” RedSeal Chief Evangelist Steve Hultquist pointed out.
“Furthermore, in the case of Windows, it is unlikely to be under active development by the community. As a result, I would expect to see targeted attacks as the result of weaknesses discovered by the release of the code,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“There’s not always a positive correlation between having a project be open source and increasing its security,” Rook’s Taylor added.
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- April 9. Auburn University confirms server configuration error that exposed on the public Internet personal information of some 364,012 students, including Social Security numbers of non-applicants to the institution who had taken standardized tests prior to 2007.
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