Governments to see Windows code

Microsoft plans to share the source code underlying Windows with several international governments, a move designed to address concerns about the security of the OS.

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Microsoft will share the source code underlying its Windows operating system with several international governments, a move designed to address concerns about the security of the OS.

The Redmond, Wash.-based company, which dominates the market for desktop software, has signed deals or expects to do so shortly with 10 countries and organizations, Salah DanDan, worldwide Government Security Program manager, said in an interview.

"The GSP is the global initiative announced today that seeks to provide governments with access to source code and information that governments need to be confident in the security of the Microsoft platform," DanDan said.

Under the program announced Tuesday, DanDan said, governments will be able to see source code for Windows 2000, XP, Server 2003 and CE; use that code to build those versions of Windows; see Microsoft security documentation the company doesn't otherwise share; visit Microsoft's headquarters; speak with Microsoft developers; and perform their own tests on the code.

Microsoft's decision isn't taking place in a vacuum. Over the past two years, governments around the world have begun considering legislation that would require the use of open-source or free software unless proprietary software is the only feasible option.

This movement, of which Brazil was an early and eager proponent, has found ready converts as governments struggle with limited information-technology budgets. Security concerns have also been an issue.

Microsoft has criticized the open-source movement, the philosophy behind Linux and several other projects that compete with Microsoft software. But one advantage the open-source community has over Microsoft is that suspicious parties may see exactly what's going on in the software it produces.

"Certainly they want to reduce the possible reasons people are looking at Linux," said Gartner analyst Michael Silver. "It sounds like another attempt by Microsoft to appear to be a bit more open."

Courting China
Microsoft acknowledges that the availability of other products' source code can "drive interest" in seeing Microsoft's code. Microsoft hopes to outdo open-source efforts by showing those governments how to use the source code once they have it, the company said.

Countries could use help poring through the millions of lines of source code, but Silver said he believes Microsoft clearly has a broader agenda in mind. "It's very political in nature," he said of the program.

The program could help "appease a country like China that there are no backdoors in Windows," Silver said, referring to secret entrances by which an outsider can take over a computer or retrieve information from it.

China is one of about 60 countries eligible for the program, DanDan said, declining to state whether it is a participant.

Microsoft is working hard to court Chinese buyers and the Chinese government, walking a fine line between coaxing the Chinese to crack down on piracy while not driving potential customers into the arms of companies such as Red Flag Linux.

Security problems have plagued Microsoft to the point where Gartner has recommended against using some packages. Providing access to Microsoft programmers could allay concerns that there are other, undisclosed vulnerabilities lurking within the secret confines of the Windows source code.

The Government Security Program was the brainchild of Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief technical officer of advanced strategies and policy, who was responding to government requests for more information access, DanDan said.

"This program is a personal project of Craig Mundie. It's something he has worked on for the last few years," DanDan said. As Mundie has been "in contact with government officials around the world, he had several conversations in which the need to have greater access and visibility into Microsoft code came up."

Mundie has been the most visible executive in Microsoft's crusade against open-source software, under which programmers are free to see, modify and redistribute source code. Among other things, he has called the approach unhealthy.

Microsoft began approaching countries about the project in late summer, DanDan said.

Security and other concerns
DanDan wouldn't say what concerns governments hoped to address, beyond the general category of security. "If you get more information about the workings of Microsoft Windows, you can make your own determination about how secure the Windows platform is," DanDan said.

While Linux's openness has pressured Microsoft, there are many other factors involved in a decision about what software to use.

Becoming more open is only one issue Microsoft must deal with in warding off the competitive threat of Linux. "There are lots of reasons that governments have started lining up behind Linux. And security and openness and (fear of) backdoors is only a portion" of them, Gartner's Silver said. "There are still monetary issues."

Linux and open-source software have encroached on Microsoft in Peru and Germany, among other countries.

In addition to Linux, perpetual Microsoft rival Sun Microsystems has been giving governments free copies of its StarOffice software, a competitor to Microsoft Office based on the open-source OpenOffice project. Recipients include China, Taiwan, Chile and Hong Kong.

Under a different program called the Shared Source Initiative, Microsoft already shares Windows source code with governments and companies. Partners in that program include Austria, Sweden, Switzerland, and several branches of the U.S. government, including the State Department, said Jason Matusow, the program's manager, in an earlier interview.

"There is a reality that having source code does have benefits for some organizations," Matusow said.

The Shared Source Initiative is available to about half the countries eligible for the Government Security Program, DanDan said.