IT professionals explore Microsoft Vista's security

When asked what it is about the upcoming Windows Vista operating system that most interests the Army, Lt. Col. Clinton Wallington III says succinctly, "Security, security, without a doubt."

Wallington, director of advanced technologies in the Army CIO's office, served with the 2nd Armored Division during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. So although he is still in the military, he is also classified as a veteran.

"Guess who got one of those 26 million letters [from the Veterans Affairs Department about the theft of their personal data]," Wallington said. "I got the letter and was like, 'No way!'"

Wallington spoke in Washington today on a panel of government IT professionals sponsored by Microsoft Corp. and the Potomac Forum Ltd.

While the gathering was intended to brief agency decision-makers on new features in Vista, the recent data breach at the Veterans Affairs Department that compromised the personal information of more than 26 million veterans provided a stark backdrop. As a result, the session's liveliest discussions centered on security features in the next-generation OS.

"If that laptop had been using [Vista], I would feel infinitely safer," Wallington said, citing the product's support for rights management, network access control and the Trusted Platform Module specification through Vista's BitLocker drive encryption software.

Still, questions swirled around the BitLocker feature, which encrypts the user's hard drive and stores a key in the TPM 1.2 chip, if one exists in the system (if not, Vista can store the BitLocker key on a USB flash drive). Company officials pointed out that BitLocker employs Federal Information Processing Standards-compliant, Advanced Encryption Standard cryptography.

Patrick Arnold, chief technology officer for Microsoft Federal, assured attendees that BitLocker keys could be archived through Microsoft Active Directory in the event a security officer or law enforcement agency needed access to an encrypted drive. "We don't recommend deploying Vista without this key escrow feature enabled," Arnold said.

Joseph Broghamer, who works on authentication technologies in the Homeland Security Department's CIO office, probed Microsoft officials on whether BitLocker would interoperate with the Personal Identity Verification II cards that DHS and other agencies must roll out this year in compliance with Homeland Security Presidential Directive-12. Arnold replied that BitLocker could not be used with PIV cards because BitLocker keys were stored on TPM chips.

"But in the case of the Encrypting File System in Vista ? you can encrypt a private key and store it on your smart card," Arnold said. EFS is a separate encryption technique that has been part of Windows since Windows 2000.

Government officials were particularly interested in two other Vista security functions: User Account Control and Network Access Protection.

Richard Gordon, deputy CIO at the Securities and Exchange Commission, acknowledged what Microsoft and outside analysts have observed about UAC, namely that it's too "chatty." As part of UAC, Vista pops open warning windows when a user or application does something that could present a security risk.

Rob Campbell, senior technology specialist at Microsoft, said that when Vista is first installed, it's natural for the UAC function to generate a surplus of warnings. Over time, the pop-ups should diminish, he said, but users will find UAC particularly effective when malware or other software attempts to take action on the user's behalf.

Network Access Protection support in Windows Vista allows administrators to set security policies for mobile systems that want access to the network. If the mobile system doesn't have the current patches, virus signatures, etc., NAP would direct that system to a quarantine area for remediation. However, Microsoft officials confirmed that in order for NAP to work, agencies need to be running Vista and the upcoming Windows Longhorn Server OS.

Longhorn Server is currently in beta 2. It's scheduled to ship in the second half of 2007. Vista will be out later this year.

Brad Grimes is chief technology editor of Washington Technology's sister publication, Government Computer News.

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