OK, call me a cold war relic, but I find the recent revelation that Microsoft has provided the source code for Windows, SQL Server, and Office to the Russian FSB (the spies formerly known as the KGB) as well as to the Chinese government quite disturbing. As recent events prove, Russia is still actively engaged in espionage against the US public and private sectors. We know that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is actively building an offensive cyber capability and that they use technology to suppress free expression in their country. Microsoft’s disclosures have been going on since 2002, as part of a program under which Microsoft has supplied source code for its products to a number of countries as well as NATO.
It does not take too much imagination to conjure up visions of Russian or Chinese government security researchers finding zero-day exploits to allow their paymasters to craft undetectable malware which is then placed on US government and private sector computers. Such an attack would be a cost effective, low risk way to gather more information in a day than the recently unmasked spy ring was able to collect over a decade. It takes even less imagination to envision the Chinese government using their access to Windows source code to build more efficient tools to monitor and muzzle those who dare to speak out against the Communist Party.
This incident raises a number of interesting questions.
Is Microsoft (a company born in America, whose success was built on the US market, and which benefits from tax breaks funded by US taxpayers) right to provide access to source code of products which are the underpinnings of all sorts of critical infrastructure to nations which are actively engaged in espionage against the US and whom we may meet on the cyber battlefield of the future? It seems to me that this is sort of like hiring a company to build a fort and then allowing them sell the plans to your adversaries.
Should Microsoft’s products have some sort of special status which recognizes them as part of the US critical infrastructure? After all, Microsoft has been allowed to gain what is basically a monopoly in the US market for operating systems and other key software. Does this engender a responsibility on their part to act in accordance with US national interests? I think it does.
Microsoft hasn’t done anything illegal here. It would be nice if they felt a need to protect the critical infrastructure of their country, but as a private entity with no laws or regulations to prevent their actions, they made the logical business decision to share the source code in order to gain better access to the Russian and Chinese markets. However, their choice is a bum deal for the rest of us, who will have to deal with the repercussions of this decision while Microsoft reaps the profits. We need to tell our legislators that it is time to take a fresh look at what we ask of companies like Microsoft and Cisco, whom we have allowed to develop monopolies on key parts of the nation’s critical infrastructure. In the conflicts yet to come, cyberspace will play a key role – and Microsoft has sold the plans for the fort to potential adversaries.