Security and .NET My Services: Can Microsoft Protect Our Data
David Chappell - February 08, 2002

In a previous article ("Privacy and .NET My Services: Can You Trust Microsoft?"), I looked at some of the privacy issues raised by Microsoft's plan to store our personal data in its forthcoming .NET My Services technology. My belief is that Microsoft is likely to keep our data private because it's the only way to make a profit from their huge investment in this technology. I have no problem trusting Microsoft or any other vendor to take the path that maximizes its own profits, and so I'm not deeply concerned about the company's commitment to maintaining the privacy of our data.

But even for people like me who trust Microsoft to keep its privacy promise, there's another important issue: Can Microsoft actually do it? Privacy—the will to not reveal data—is one thing, but security, the ability to actually accomplish this, is something else altogether. Servers on the Internet full of personal information are bound to be tempting targets for hackers, so Microsoft must somehow provide first-class security for those machines. Yet Microsoft's history in building secure Web software is not exactly perfect, as the repeated problems with IIS have shown. How can the company guarantee that the data we place in .NET My Services will be secure?

I don't think it can. In fact, I don't believe Microsoft or any vendor can absolutely guarantee that its Internet-accessible servers will be hacker-proof. Since there's no way to prove that something is completely secure, Microsoft's goal must be to convince its customers that storing their data in .NET My Services is secure enough, whatever that might mean.

Clearly, some customers will never believe that Microsoft can provide enough security (and some will never trust Microsoft to maintain their data's privacy, either). Hardcore Redmond haters aren't the target market for .NET My Services, however. Instead, the initial market appears to be consumers; people like your neighbors and your mom. Most of these people have a positive view of Microsoft, and so they're likely to grant the company some trust. Furthermore, most consumers don't have much real understanding of security issues, and so I'd be surprised if they're deterred from beginning to use .NET My Services by paranoia about attacks on their data.

Initially, then, I think Microsoft's security efforts will be trusted by a large number of potential customers. The company should be able to get .NET My Services off the ground as a viable business because a substantial number of people will give them the benefit of the doubt. Keeping this business airborne, however, will require ensuring that no really major security breaches take place. Any significant attacks will be prominently featured on CNN (which, you may recall, is a subsidiary of AOL), and it won't take too many of these before consumers lose faith in Microsoft.

While the technical problems are certainly challenging, providing sufficient security for .NET My Services is ultimately a business issue: If hackers are able to repeatedly compromise the data this service contains, its customers will desert in droves, and .NET My Services will die. Guaranteeing complete security is probably impossible, but Microsoft certainly has a very strong incentive to protect its .NET My Services servers—it's life and death for this business.

It's also worth pointing out that every Internet-accessible Web service will face this problem. In fact, many of the issues that have been raised by .NET My Services—privacy, security, availability, and more—are actually generic concerns that must be addressed by any organization that wishes to provide public Web services. .NET My Services is the first highly visible application of this idea, and so it's the canary in the coal mine for public Web services. Other organizations that hope to mine this technology vein should pay close attention.