Windows defense handcuffs good guys

Microsoft's PatchGuard is designed to keep out malicious code, but security firms say it just keeps them at bay.

A protective feature in Windows is locking out the good guys, but letting in a lot of bad guys, according to security software makers.

Microsoft designed PatchGuard to safeguard core parts of Windows, including Vista, against malicious code attacks. But some security companies say that the feature makes it harder for them to protect Windows PCs, as it locks them out of the kernel, the core of the operating system.

"PatchGuard is hurting security vendors more than it is hurting malware writers," Bruce McCorkendale, a chief engineer at Symantec, told CNET News.com in an interview Wednesday. "There are types of security policies and next-generation security products that can only work through some of the mechanisms that PatchGuard prohibits."

Symantec is not alone in its complaints, but it is the largest security company to speak out publicly. Sana Security and Agnitum, two smaller vendors, said they share its concerns, but giants Cisco Systems and McAfee declined to comment for this story.

Microsoft defends the technology, which applies only to 64-bit versions of Windows. Cybercrooks have found ways to exploit the kernel for malicious purposes, making the protection offered by PatchGuard key to securing the operating system, said Stephen Toulouse, a program manager in Microsoft's Security Technology Group.

"It is more important to prevent the installation of malicious software than it is to allow third-party vendors, no matter what the software, to extend the kernel," Toulouse said. "This is not specific to security software. This is a global change to 64-bit Windows to provide a more security computing experience."

Microsoft's push into the security market has put many defense providers on guard. Symantec, especially, looks wary; it has said it will compete with Microsoft as long as there is a level playing field. Now, for the first time, Symantec is saying that Microsoft is limiting the security choices of consumers--which could be interpreted as anticompetitive behavior.

"PatchGuard will make it harder for third parties, particularly host intrusion prevention software, to function in Vista," said Yankee Group analyst Andrew Jaquith. "Third parties have two choices: continue to petition Microsoft to create an approved kernel-hooking interface so products like theirs can work, or use 'black hat' techniques to bypass the restrictions."

Barriers to the kernel
PatchGuard debuted a year ago in Windows XP x64 Edition, but the technology was never broadly adopted. That's set to change when Windows Vista hits store shelves in January, analysts expect. As people buy PCs with 64-bit processors use of the 64-bit edition of Windows will increase.

In particular, PatchGuard inhibits host intrusion prevention products, security vendors and analysts said. These "HIPS" products are an upcoming class of security software that determines whether a program is malicious by looking at its behavior, rather than using the classic signature-based approach, which checks a program against a database of known threats.

On top of this, PatchGuard blocks features to protect against tampering with security tools, McCorkendale said. Malicious programs increasingly try to disable security software, and the tamper-protection features aim to prevent that.

"There is a whole bunch of companies out there that have pioneered next-generation security, that are limited by PatchGuard," McCorkendale said.

There's another "disturbing side effect," according to a Symantec blog posting. While legitimate security vendors can no longer make extensions to the Vista kernel, attackers have already found ways to disable and work around PatchGuard, it says.

"There is a whole bunch of companies out there that have pioneered next-generation security, that are limited by PatchGuard."
--Bruce McCorkendale, chief engineer, Symantec

Sana Security and firewall maker Agnitum sounded a similar alarm.

"Bad guys can bypass PatchGuard today," said Vlad Gorelik, chief technology officer at Sana Security, which makes host intrusion prevention software. "Microsoft has this assumption that if you put a shield in, the bad guys will stay out. That is not the way it works. But now they force security vendors to bring a knife to a gun fight."

The barrier to the Windows kernel forces security companies to adopt hacker tactics, Gorelik said. "We will have to come up with alternative mechanisms for doing the same thing," he said. "In some cases, we can actually take a page out of the bad guys' text book and bypass PatchGuard."

With PatchGuard, Microsoft is effectively taking control of security for the Windows core, Gorelik said. Previously, third parties could also provide defenses for that part of the operating system, he said. Now, if PatchGuard breaks, it will be up to Microsoft to fix the flaw and make Windows PCs secure.

"They would have to patch the kernel if someone bypasses PatchGuard," Gorelik said, noting that the kernel is the toughest thing to fix in the operating system.

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