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Microsoft's Critical New Hire
Tim Mullen, 2002-01-21

Bill Gates can demonstrate that his new security push is genuine by choosing the right person to replace Howard Schmidt.

Bill Gates' recent company-wide memo outlining Microsoft's vision for Trustworthy Computing has generated lots of attention, both good and bad.

To some, it is more Microsoft rhetoric wrapped inside a public relations campaign designed to postpone accountability for producing secure products until they can get .NET out the door. For others, they see it as a long awaited public asseveration that Microsoft has finally put security above all else, and that they are embracing the responsibility of securing today's (and tomorrow's) Internet.

It should come as no surprise to you that I number myself among the latter group.

I can't help but notice that when Bill Gates makes a decree that speaks directly to securing his products, people consider it nothing but PR. But when Larry Ellison embarks on a blatant PR campaign of misinformation, people say he is raising the bar for security. Go figure.

Regardless, the memo comes at a good time. As the sun sets on Howard Schmidt's days as Microsoft's chief security officer, and he prepares for his new role as the number two man at the United States' Critical Infrastructure Protection Board, Microsoft CTO Craig Mundie is already looping in key Microsoft employees in his search for a replacement. Word on the street is that Mundue may even create additional positions in order for Microsoft to fully leverage the opportunity they have at this pivotal time in the company's history.

Schmidt's egress is fortuitous. Though he was instrumental in the formation of Microsoft's "trustworthy computing initiative," and the accompanying powerhouse team of security experts -- including people like Eric Schultze, David LeBlanc, and Jesper Johansson -- he was not exactly a Braveheart when it came to firing up the troops for battle.

And that is just what Microsoft needs.

I have long said that in order for Microsoft to truly change the way its products are produced, it would take mandate from the top. Individual groups and departments, no matter how separately committed they are, can't impact the direction of the company if the corporate executives are not doing the steering.

This is the perfect occasion for Microsoft to illustrate their commitment to security and to solidify their new priorities of security before functionality. Gates flat-out said that the entire company must put security first, and there is no way for him to back out of it now.

Microsoft has spoken much of security lately, and has rolled out programs like the CTI and the Strategic Technology Protection Program. Brian Valentine has also promised a complete code-level review as the basis for Win2k's Service Pack 3. Now they need to get someone in as chief security officer who can act as a catalyst to bring the fragments of the company together into a unified force to finally take security as seriously as they need to.

Of course, even with management reforms, Microsoft still has a challenge ahead in putting the "Trustworthy" into "Trustworthy Computing."

If every programmer on staff were to build security directly into the development model and the company was to produce a robust and secure platform in .NET, Microsoft's new chief security officer will still have the job of earning the world's trust and getting the public to buy into the concept. Frankly, I don't know which job will be harder.

I was thinking about making some predictions on who they might seek out in order to fill this crucial position, but I'm having a hard time coming up with any viable candidates. This person is going to be in the capacity of literally changing the face of global security, and will have a massive responsibility on their shoulders.

It can't really be someone from the inside, as logic would dictate that it was the current management that got them into trouble in the first place. It's got to be someone who has the intelligence to see what the right thing to do is, and who has the confidence to get it done.

In some bizarre world in a parallel universe, I actually see someone like Bruce Schneier in that position. Someone in his capacity could make a world of difference -- someone who would fight for security instead of playing the cover-your-rear game all day. You know, someone who would stand up for what they thought was right and not be intimidated by Bill.

I don't know who it will end up being; I just hope that Bill and Steve, along with Craig and the rest of the big-wigs at Microsoft, see this as the critical decision that it is. We are all watching, and this will tell us exactly how serious Microsoft is about our security. I hope they get it right.


SecurityFocus columnist Timothy M. Mullen is Vice President of Consulting Services for NGSSoftware.
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