Secure Version of Windows Created for the U.S. Air Force
The Air Force, on the verge of renegotiating its desktop-software contract with Microsoft, met with Ballmer and asked the company to deliver a secure configuration of Windows XP out of the box. That way, Air Force administrators wouldn’t have to spend time re-configuring, and the department would have uniform software across the board, making it easier to control and maintain patches.
Surprisingly, Microsoft quickly agreed to the plan, and Ballmer got personally involved in the project.
“He has half-a-dozen clients that he personally gets involved with, and he saw that this just made a lot of sense,” Gilligan said. “They had already done preliminary work themselves trying to identify what would be a more secure configuration. So we fine-tuned and added to that.”
The NSA got together with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Defense Information Systems Agency and the Center for Internet Security to decide what to lock down in the Air Force special edition.
Many of the changes were complex and technical, but Gilligan says one of the most important and simplest was an obvious fix to how Windows XP handled passwords. The Air Force insisted the system be configured so administrative passwords were unique, and different from general user passwords, preventing an average user from obtaining administrative privileges. Specifications were added to increase the length and complexity of passwords and expire them every 60 days.
It then took two years for the Air Force to catalog and test all the software applications on its networks against the new configuration to uncover conflicts. In some cases, where internally designed software interacted with Windows XP in an insecure way, they had to change the in-house software.
Now I want Microsoft to offer this configuration to everyone.
EDITED TO ADD (5/6): Microsoft responds:
Thanks for covering this topic, but unfortunately the reporter for the original article got a lot of the major facts, which you relied upon, wrong. For instance, there isn’t a special version of Windows for the Air Force. They use the same SKUs as everyone else. We didn’t deliver a special settings that only the Air Force can access. The Air Force asked us to help them to create a hardened gpos and images, which the AF could use as the standard image. We agreed to assist, as we do with any company that hires us to assist in setting their own security policy as implemented in Windows.
The work from the AF ended up morphing into the Federal Desktop Core Configuration (FDCC) recommendations maintained by NIST. There are differences, but they are essentially the same thing. NIST initially used even more secure settings in the hardening process (many of which have since been relaxed because of operational issues, and is now even closer to what the AF created).
Anyone can download the FDCC settings, documentation, and even complete images. I worked on the FDCC project for little over a year, and Aaron Margosis has been involved for many years, and continues to be involved. He offers all sorts of public knowledge and useful tools. Here, Aaron has written a couple of tools that anyone can use to apply FDCC settings to local group policy. It includes the source code, if anyone wants to customize them.
In the initial article, a lot of the other improvements, such as patching, came from the use of better tools (SCCM, etc.), and were not necessarily solely due to the changes in the base image (although that certainly didn’t hurt). So, it seems the author mixed up some of the different technology pushes and wrapped them up into a single story. He also seem to imply that this is something special and secret, but the truth is there is more openness with the FDCC program and the surrounding security outcomes than anything we’ve ever done before. Even better, there are huge agencies that have already gone first in trying to use these harden settings, and essentially been beta testers for the rest of the world. The FDCC settings may not be the best fit for every company, but it is a good model to compare against.
Let me know if you have any questions.
Roger A. Grimes, Security Architect, ACE Team, Microsoft
EDITED TO ADD (5/12): FDCC policy specs.