Expert: IT industry has failed in desktop security

Software shipped with the major operating systems runs unencumbered on most machines--and not all of that software should be trusted, he says.
Written by Munir Kotadia, Contributor
The IT industry has failed when it comes to desktop security for all major operating systems, a security specialist told delegates attending a conference in Australia.

Ivan Krstic, director of security architecture for the One Laptop per Child project, kicked off the AusCert 2007 conference Monday morning with a keynote speech that blasted desktop computer security--including that of Windows, Linux and Macintosh machines--because it is based on a 35-year-old premise where software can run with the same privilege as a user.

"The No. 1 broken assumption of desktop security...is this very simple premise that all executing software should execute with the full permission that its user possesses," Krstic said.

"There are a bunch of programs that ship with all major operating systems--including Linux, Mac OS and Windows--that can format your hard drive, spy on your computer, spy on you with your microphone and camera, and turn over control of your computer to third parties," Krstic said.

One example of such a program, he said, is Minesweeper, a single-player game that has shipped with virtually all versions of Microsoft Windows.

"This is no exaggeration. There is nothing in place to say that Minesweeper cannot do these things. That tells me something is pretty badly broken," he said.

Krstic explained that programs such as Minesweeper have the ability to affect other programs because of a premise that dates back to 1971, when the first version of Unix was released by computer scientists Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie, and loading code onto a computer was no trivial matter.

In 1971 "the only way that code could get from one place to another was with punch-cards or tapes. You carried it physically, put it on the machine and then ran it. If you did that then you should take responsibility for whatever that program does to your computer.

"Thirty-five years later we are using the same fundamental premise of security," said Krstic, who reminded the delegates that modern computers "run untrusted code every time they visit a Web site."

Munir Kotadia of ZDNet AUStralia reported from Sydney.

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