May 5, 2009
Microsoft announces that it has delivered to the U.S. Air Force its most secure distribution version
of Windows XP. The software behemoth says that more than 600 security settings have been locked down tight
and that critical security patches can be installed in an average of 72 hours instead of the usual 57 days.
Last year, the Air Force persuaded Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to provide it with an exclusive locked-down Windows
configuration that saved the department about $100 million in contract costs and numerous hours of software
and OS maintenance.
At a congressional hearing last Friday on cybersecurity, Alan Paller, research director of the Sans
Institute, shared the story as a template for how the U.S. government could use its massive purchasing
power to get companies, even the size of Microsoft, to produce products that are a lot more secure than
what the general public gets.
Security experts have been arguing
for this secure OS model for years. But rather than wield its buying power for the greater good, the
government has long wimped out and taken whatever vendors served them. If the U.S. Air Force case is a good
judge, however, things might be changing soon...
Gilligan, who served as CIO of the Air Force from 2001 to 2005 and now runs a consulting firm, said it all
began more than six years ago after the NSA conducted penetration tests on the Air Force network as part of
its regular testing of Pentagon cybersecurity.
NSA pen-testers found that about 73 percent of their intrusions were possible because of poorly configured
software that created vulnerabilities. In some cases, the culprit was an operating system or application
that came bloated with unsecured features that were never re-configured securely by Air Force administrators.
In other cases, systems that were configured securely became vulnerable later, for example, when a system
crashed and original software was re-installed without security patches that had been on the system before
“It was really an easy target,” Gilligan says. “All the NSA had to do was scan the network.”
The U.S. Air Force, on the verge of renegotiating its desktop-software contract with Microsoft, met with Ballmer
and asked the company to deliver a secure configuration of Windows XP out of the box. That way, Air Force administrators
wouldn’t have to spend less time re-configuring the OS, and the department would have uniform software across the
board, making it a lot easier to control and maintain critical security patches.
Microsoft quickly agreed to the plan, and, surprisingly, Ballmer even got personally involved in the project.
Many of the changes were complex and technical, but Gilligan says one of the most important and simplest was an
obvious fix to how Windows XP handled passwords. The Air Force insisted the system be configured so
administrative passwords were unique, and different from general user passwords, preventing an average user
from obtaining administrative privileges.
Specifications were added to increase the length and complexity of passwords and expire them every 60 days.
Source: The U.S. Air Force.