Virus busters wash their dirty linen in public
McAfee has followed Symantec in publicly attacking Microsoft's plans to increase the security of its forthcoming Windows Vista operating system. George Samenuk, Mc Afee's chairman and chief executive, even claimed in an advertisement published in the Financial Times that Microsoft was "increasing [the] security risk with Vista".
Samenuk's "open letter" accused Microsoft of hamstringing competitors, and proclaimed: "We won't remain silent as Microsoft imposes unnecessary security risks. Microsoft's new approach is misguided in principle, bad for innovation and competition."
McAfee's main complaint is about the PatchGuard system that protects the code in the operating system kernel. However, Samenuk's letter neglected to point out that PatchGuard appears only in 64-bit versions of Windows, and that it was introduced two years ago. It has no effect on McAfee's 32-bit Windows programs.
Microsoft rarely comments on other company's claims, but in this case, Ben Fathi, the corporate vice-president of Microsoft's security technology unit, was frustrated enough to respond. Looking over the letter and McAfee's earlier press information, which I mailed him, he said: "They're misrepresenting some of the facts," and "They're taking a very small molehill and making a mountain out of it. They think that yelling and screaming is going to make their points true, and that's not the case."
Fathi suggested that Samenuk's letter was confused about PatchGuard being cracked, but he agreed it could be. "No, we're not stupid, but just because there might be a way to circumvent it doesn't mean we shouldn't even try to protect the kernel. This is an arms race."
The press statement that McAfee could not disable and replace Microsoft's Defender software was "absolutely false," added Fathi. "They already knew by then that they had that information." Microsoft had not planned to allow this, but following pressure from other vendors, developed the interface and provided the information on Friday September 22.
Fathi also claimed Microsoft wasn't hamstringing security vendors - who were given access to computer labs, daily builds of Vista and staff to help them in Redmond. "[McAfee's] developers are working with us," said Fathi. "The PR engine they've spun up is not necessarily in synchronisation with reality.
"I hate to say this," Fathi concludes, "but we're seeing an example of the doctor wanting to keep the patient sick. To us it seems clear: they stand to lose a chunk of their market if Windows becomes more secure."
Graham Cluley of Sophos, a leading UK-based security vendor, confirmed by email that Sophos "is experiencing no problems with PatchGuard for our anti-virus software". He added: "Sophos believes that PatchGuard is a positive step by Microsoft to improve security on Vista, and is not in itself anti-competitive provided that Microsoft delivers on its commitment to provide the same level of kernel support and integration to third-party security vendors as it does to its own security product team.
"Our view is that security vendors need to remember that the requirements of the user are paramount. They are demanding better security from their computers when they connect to the internet. Security vendors and Microsoft have to retain good relations to deliver innovative security solutions to users. Taking out full-page adverts doesn't sound like the behaviour of a company enjoying good relations with MS, but more like a divorcing Hollywood couple airing their dirty laundry in the tabloids."
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