Ten year lookback: the Trustworthy Computing memo

On the Veracode blog (where I now post from time to time), we had a retrospective on the Microsoft Trustworthy Computing memo, which had its ten year anniversary on the 15th. The retrospective spanned two posts and I’m quoted in the second:

On January 15, 2002, I was in business school and had just accepted a job offer from Microsoft. At the time it was a very different company–hip deep in the fallout from the antitrust suit and the consent decree; having just launched Windows XP; figuring out where it was going on the web (remember Passport)? And the taking of a deep breath that the Trustworthy Computing memo signaled was the biggest sign that things were different at Microsoft.

And yet not. It’s important to remember that a big part of the context of TWC was the launch of .NET and the services around it (remember Passport)? Microsoft was positioning Passport (fka Hailstorm) as the solution for the Privacy component of their Availability, Security, Privacy triad, so TWC was at least partly a positioning memo for that new technology. And it’s pretty clear that they hadn’t thought through all the implications of the stance they were taking: witness BillG’s declaration that “Visual Studio .NET is the first multi-language tool that is optimized for the creation of secure code”. While .NET may have eliminated or mitigated the security issues related to memory management that Microsoft was drowning in at the time, it didn’t do anything fundamentally different with respect to web vulnerabilities like cross-site scripting or SQL injection.

But there was one thing about the TWC memo that was different and new and that did signal a significant shift at Microsoft: Gates’ assertion that “when we face a choice between adding features and resolving security issues, we need to choose security.” As an emerging product manager, that was an important principle for me to absorb–security needs to be considered as a requirement alongside user facing features and needs to be prioritized accordingly. It’s a lesson that the rest of the industry is still learning.

To which I’ll add: it’s interesting what I blogged about this at the time and what I didn’t. As an independent developer I was very suspicious of Hailstorm (later Passport.NET) but hadn’t thought that much about its security implications.

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