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By | John Leyden 28th July 2006 19:02

Developers cry foul over Windows kernel security


Recently introduced security measures by Microsoft will make it more difficult to integrate third-party security tools with Windows, according to a rival personal firewall firm.

Agnitum reckons that the introduction of Kernel Patch Protection by Microsoft will force independent security software vendors to adopt the same tactics as hackers in order to get their code to work.

Security researchers at Agnitum - best known for its Outpost personal firewall product - reached this conclusion after an analysis of Microsoft's Kernel Patch Protection approach. The technology is designed to limit the exposure of Windows machine to rootkits, which are forms of malware that hide their presence on infected systems, by restricting access to low-level kernel functions.

But Agnitum thinks the approach is susceptible to reverse engineering attacks by skilled hackers, while preventing legitimate software developers from installing software at the kernel level, unless ISVs similarly reverse-engineer access to the OS kernel. Such an approach would make it more difficult to install and maintain independent security products on Windows, Agnitum argues. Hackers, by contrast, have no need to fret about compatibility issues.

"As the vendor of Outpost Firewall Pro, we have to install at the kernel level," said Alexey Belkin, chief software architect at Agnitum. "In addressing the potential problem of not being able to install Outpost on new versions of Windows, we have discovered that it is possible to drill past the new security measures introduced by Microsoft - if we use the same techniques used by hackers."

Kernel Patch Protection protects low-level system activities such as the file and registry operations of the Windows kernel. Program that gains access to the kernel can, for instance, hide a folder on the hard disk and make it impossible to delete that folder using standard tools. The technology is slated for delivery with Windows Vista and 64-bit versions of Windows. Agnitum describes Microsoft's approach as misguided, if not deliberately anti-competitive.

"Microsoft made a logical move with this attempt to protect Windows against rootkits," said Mikhail Penkovsky, vice president of sales and marketing at Agnitum. "Unfortunately, it doesn't really resolve the problem, and also makes it a great deal more difficult for independent security software developers to be fully compatible with Windows."

"Nobody knows if Microsoft has done this intentionally, but we can't avoid the suspicion that this move may have been designed to force users to rely on Microsoft and only Microsoft for Windows security," he added. ®

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