Microsoft will release an enterprise tool that offers some of the security features in the new Office 2007 suite to protect users still running the older Office 2003 applications, a company researcher says.
Third-party security professionals applauded the move, calling it a "fantastic" idea.
Saddled with the ungainly title Microsoft Office Isolated Conversion Environment (MOICE), the tool should put a stop to the kind of attacks that rely on malformed Word or Excel or Powerpoint documents to hijack specifically-targeted corporate PCs. These attacks, which began early last year and ramped up dramatically during the summer, have continued into 2007.
The concept, says David LeBlanc, co-author of the just-released book Writing Secure Code for Vista (Microsoft Press), uses new security properties of Office 2007 document formats to protect Office 2003. "When we converted a [Office 2003] exploit document to the new Office 2007 'Metro' format, it would either fail the conversion, emit a nonexploitable file, or the converter itself would crash," says LeBlanc on a his company blog.
That discovery set wheels in motion. "If we could preprocess documents coming from untrusted sources from the older  format to protect the new  format, and then get an older version of Office to use its converter to read in the new file format, the customer is going to end up safer," LeBlanc says.
Because the process requires two document conversions — the first from old format to new, then another from new back to old — Microsoft acknowledged that MOICE won't be the choice for everyone. "We're also stripping out things like macros and VBA projects, [so] sure, it's a big hit, but this is a security feature," says LeBlanc.
"This is a fantastic idea," says Minoo Hamilton, senior security researcher at nCircle Network Security "It makes perfect sense and will definitely have an impact on security. We've been noticing on a monthly basis the quantity of Office file formats climbing, so if they can cut the number, I'm all for it."
Microsoft may be known for banging the drum on new software's security prowess in the hope of convincing users to upgrade, but in this case, the company has changed the beat, Hamilton says. By delivering additional security to users of older software, he says, Microsoft is showing that "some of the realism is sinking in perhaps, that it makes better business sense to think about security separately from the equation of selling software."