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Is Vista security a selling point?

Hoping this release will solve all your security headaches? Think again, say the experts.

An assortment of new security features in Windows Vista will help many consumers become "secure enough," but businesses are unlikely to abandon their current levels of additional, backup security if they adopt the new operating system, some experts say.

Among more than a dozen security features within Vista are improvements such as the malicious software removal tool, smart card and log-on authentication changes, user access controls, USB device controls, Windows defender and Windows firewall.

But none of these, even in combination, should be seen as a panacea, security professionals say, and the need for a layered approach to security remains as critical as ever.

Stuart Okin, security partner at Accenture and former U.K. head of security at Microsoft, told "As I see it, there are 15 security features in Vista and none of them are this great panacea where if you install them the world will be OK.

"Security is about layers and you need to take a layered approach to security."

While Okin's admonition is not new--or unexpected--it is worth repeating, especially to protect consumers from an overreliance on Vista's security features.

The net effect for consumers, however, will undoubtedly be improvement, Okin said. "From a consumer point of view, I think the biggest improvements are going to be around .

"The downside is they are going to be prompted a lot more. But if people and the wider industry get a sense that this is a more secure environment, then I think that will have the biggest impact from a positive point of view."

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It's those prompts that raise some questions among security experts about a perennial trade-off between security and usability. To what degree would Microsoft ever risk to make it more secure?

Peter Wood, a penetration tester--or "ethical hacker"--from First Base Technologies, suggests the Redmond, Wash., giant has made promising strides in answering this question.

"If Microsoft wants to make a more secure (operating system) then they need to weight the balance between usability and security more in favor of security," Wood said. "I believe they have done that by making more things turned on as default than turned off."

And the early impressions of Vista is that consumers will indeed be safer if they're willing to leave features disabled and work with increased prompts and pop-up warnings.

"For the end user, Vista is definitely a net benefit," said Jay Heiser, research vice president at Gartner. "Although Vista apparently exceeds expectations for robustness, which is a welcome surprise for everyone, my personal feeling is that Vista represents a much higher relative improvement for end users and small business than it does for the enterprise.

"Vista should be a much more robust environment for safe use by inexperienced, unsupported people on the Internet."

But while Vista was always expected to sell well to consumers, there's no doubt Microsoft hopes that its greater emphasis on security will also help boost enterprise sales.

Gartner's Heiser isn't convinced that will be the case. "Many enterprises are experiencing a very acceptable level of security failure today, without Vista," he said of the fact businesses have been raised on an expectation to need to secure past Microsoft operating systems and are seeing a growing trend toward risk-based security.

Identity and access management
However, Accenture's Okin said being able to simplify those very expensive security architectures--while maintaining strong layers of protection--will appeal to many enterprises. And he adds there are a number of features in Vista that businesses likely will add to their regular inventory of security tools.

"From a business perspective, I think the one feature which will have the biggest social change will be the new architecture around log-ons and smart-card authentication," Okin said. "For the first time ever it will be really very simple for applications to call upon smart-card or biometric authentication."

Currently half of Accenture's security business is done around identity and access management--a fact that makes Okin confident his former bosses have hit something of a sweet spot with the user-identity and authentication features.

"Over the next few years, you're going to be seeing the first apps which will find it very easy to say, 'OK, you need your biometric authentication now or your smart card,' whether it's online banking or e-commerce or anything else, he said.

"Up until now it has been expensive and difficult to do, and as long as it is expensive and difficult people will find a reason why they don't want to do it."

And it's not just Vista's identity and access management features that Okin thinks will have chief technology officers thumbing their checkbooks.

The operating system includes USB-device controls that help stop data leakage via devices such as digital cameras, iPods and memory keys, and also help prevent the introduction of unlicensed applications, copyrighted media and potentially infected files.

"I've got clients at the moment who are getting very excited about BitLocker," Vista's hard-drive encryption technology, Okin added.

This encryption feature is a long-awaited improvement to a Windows operating system that ethical hacker Peter Wood says is a definite move in the right direction.

"The BitLocker technology is quite an interesting approach. We've been pushing a long time for (corporations) to take whole-disk encryption seriously, particularly on laptops and other devices outside the physical perimeter, and the majority of people we've spoken to still don't have a strategy in place," Wood said.

However, Wood also suggested that BitLocker, like other Windows features, could yet be undermined.

"We use PGP (the Pretty Good Privacy encryption program) for our whole-disk encryption because it is independent of the operating system," Wood said. "My experience to date with Microsoft's controls of these systems is that there is usually a way around it because it is so part of the Windows environment."

Security as a selling point
Wood said that determined hackers may discover that searching for holes in the operating system will offer the path of least resistance. But he admits he has yet to get his hands on Vista and is basing his criticism on the ease with which he has cracked past Microsoft code.

And he remains to be convinced Microsoft can learn from all its past mistakes.

Probability plays a part, said Wood: "It's an enormous chunk of code and it is going to be full of holes because anybody's code would be."

BitLocker, though, will most definitely be an improvement, because encryption that could potentially be cracked is still better than nothing. But as with any new technology, Wood's major concerns with Vista relate to the biggest potential security weakness: the end user.

And because encryption will be tied to individuals' Windows user accounts, Wood fears this, too, will make BitLocker inherently insecure.

He doesn't share Okin's confidence that two-factor authentication--and Vista's greater receptiveness to stronger authentication--will make much difference, or even be used.

Wood fears that for all Vista's improvements, passwords--a "perpetual, primitive and stupid problem"--will still be the Achilles' heel for many businesses rolling out the operating system.

And while biometrics and smart cards are an improvement on passwords, he says, they are still only a superficial improvement. He instead favors pass phrases, which he says could dramatically increase the security of any Vista environment and make its other features work more effectively.

But the bottom line is it seems under its belt before people start to believe the prerelease Vista hype. All in all, Accenture's Okin isn't convinced security will have much to do with how well Vista sells.

"The clients I work with today are probably looking at migration because they are using Windows 2000 and they aren't about to switch to XP," Okin noted. "I've seen economics around power usage and around lost laptops and savings that could be made from BitLocker and everything else, but even jointly they are not compelling."

It's more likely businesses will be swayed by other factors, such as the timing of their equipment-replacement cycle or by a wish to not be out of step with employees using Vista's home edition outside of work.

Okin says chief technology officers are telling him: "I don't want my guys to go home and have a better experience."

"If you are on Windows 2000, then of course it's compelling and you may as well go. Those on XP will be trialing and can pick their time to go.

"But are they doing it because of the security features? No. Have I seen security features as part of a business justification? Part of them, yes, but really the business justification (based on Vista's security features) is weak as a whole."

Will Sturgeon of reported from London.