CNET también está disponible en español.

Ir a español

Don't show this again

Tech Industry

Microsoft works to fix MSN privacy flaw

A problematic feature in MSN Messenger allows any Web site to grab visitors' IM nicknames as well as names from their buddy lists.

Microsoft is putting the final touches on a patch to limit an MSN Messenger feature that allowed any Web site to grab a visitor's IM nickname and buddy list.

While representatives for the Microsoft Network have said no customers have fallen prey to the potential privacy problem, the group plans to release early next week an updated version of MSN Messenger that fixes the problem.

"In order to implement the fix, customers will have to upgrade to the next version of MSN messenger," a representative for the software titan said on Friday.

The issue occurs because Microsoft designed MSN Messenger to allow JavaScript contained in Web pages to access a customer's buddy list and, for certain Microsoft sites, the e-mail addresses of the person.

Software engineer Richard Burton highlighted the privacy implications of the feature in a post to SecurityFocus' BugTraq mailing list recently.

"It appears to have been intended as a feature so they could put in nice customizations on their Web sites," said the U.K.-based programmer on Friday. "I only raised it as a potential, so I don't think people need to panic."

The ill-conceived feature comes at a poor time for the software giant. Last month, Chairman Bill Gates wrote a companywide memo spurring employees to make security and privacy their top priorities.

"So now, when we face a choice between adding features and resolving security issues, we need to choose security," Gates wrote. Calling the initiative "Trustworthy Computing," the founder of Microsoft kicked off extensive code reviews to catch potential problems in the company's flagship software.

Coming two weeks after the memo, the current slipup spotlights the sheer amount of work that Microsoft needs to accomplish to make its software trustworthy.

A little more than a week ago, gamers had problems connecting to the Microsoft Network owing to a glitch with the company's Passport log-in service. In August, Microsoft patched a hole in Hotmail that could allow a person's e-mail to be read by others.

But the current problem is considered more of a privacy hiccup than a major problem, the Microsoft representative said.

After Microsoft releases the fixed version, MSN Messenger users will receive notification when they start up the application that the new software is ready for download.

"The level of risk is considered low," the Microsoft representative said.

Burton agreed. "I wouldn't say it is as serious as people have taken it," he said. "I don't think it is being actively exploited."