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SAN FRANCISCO—Microsoft executives Bill Gates and Craig Mundie kicked off the RSA Conference 2007 on Feb. 6 with a keynote presentation emphasizing the need for stronger online identity protection and IT systems access management.

Speaking to attendees gathered here for the annual security conference—held at the Moscone Center from Feb. 5-10—the executives sought to highlight Microsoft’s commitment to the security software market.

Gates, Microsoft’s chairman, and Mundie, the firm’s chief research and strategy officer, specifically focused on the identity fraud epidemic that has pushed many users to eschew online applications, and IT organizations’ continued fight to keep unwanted intruders and malware programs from finding ways to infiltrate their networks.

Mundie did the bulk of the speaking and made it clear he will be the one addressing an audience like that at RSA from here on out as Gates is stepping out of Microsoft’s product fray over the next year to focus on humanitatrian projects with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Mundie was direct on several key areas of Microsoft’s past history and difficult reputation in the security space.

“We need to think better about the boundaries of what we create. We didn’t do a good job of that in the past. We didn’t do enough engineering to create intrinsic security in our systems,” said Mundie. “We need to collaborate on specifications to a degree no possible in the past. We will need more industry cooperation and partnerships to deliver on this model for new enterprise networks.”

When characterizing issues around identity and access and the need for stronger online authentication, Mundie pointed out that users have to have some flexibility in what “persona they want to present.”

Mundie followed with: “In the physical world we still have this problem with tokens we use like credit cards, driver’s licenses and passports. We need something similar that can control everything from access to Web sites to Exchange server.”

Gates shared his views on the notion that today’s culture of “anywhere access,” or the ability of users to view their electronic data from nearly any location using mobile and Web-based technologies, must be better supported by security applications that prevent identity fraud and information theft, two of the most significant and widespread problems looming over the IT industry today.

“Idenitity is where the weakest links in these (IT) systems has been. Passwords are weak, and have a huge problem. The more that you have, the worse that they work,” said Gates. “When you go to a site and want to get capabilities, instead of passwords you should get a certificate that creates a chain of trust.”

Gates specifically cited the growing problem of advanced malware programs such as root kits and keystroke loggers—many of which have exploited vulnerabilities in Microsoft’s own products.

In addition, the Microsoft chairman said people are wilting under a crush of user names and passwords as nearly every site and application has its own security interface, and called for an “identity meta-system” through which vendors would integrate their authentication technologies to ease the burden on users.

In making his points, Gates highlighted recent research published by the CSIA (Cyber Security Industry Alliance) that found that 50 percent of all Web users are afraid to hand over credit card information online, and observed that the trend is a clear sign that security issues have begun to affect the growth of Internet-based applications and e-commerce.

Gates also addressed the rise of internal corporate information potentially finding its way out of companies too easily.

“One of the things email has done is make it easy to send confidential information around our companies,” said Gates to a packed room of RSA attendees. “The problem has been the ability to forward this data until it appears on the front page (of news and Web sites). The ability to the appropriate scope of who can send and receive needs to be enforced, and one piece of rights management will be better control to that end.”

Click here to read more about new security products expected at this year’s RSA Conference.

Gates and Mundie said that technology provider must focus on three specific technological areas that will improve security and lighten the load on users.

If IT providers can better protect network boundaries, build stronger malware and intrusion defense products, and create more intuitive identity management systems, they will have gone a long way toward addressing today’s problems, the executives said.

To that end, Gates and Mundie detailed a range of new products and industry partnerships launched by Microsoft that aim to address the challenge of providing more secure and ubiquitous IT systems access for users.

Microsoft specifically debuted its ILM (Identity Lifecycle Manager) 2007 package, to be launched in May 2007, which the executives said would provide an integrated meta-directory for integrating authentication credential.

The company also touted its work to partner with standards groups to integrate its own technologies with those of other providers, highlighting collaboration around its Windows CardSpace technology—client software in the Vista operating system that aims to streamline the distribution of digital identities to online services.

By aligning the technology with standards including the OpenID 2.0 specification, the executives said Microsoft is already helping businesses improve the security of their Web-based applications, with customers including Wachovia Bank showing off their use of the tools at the conference.

Microsoft launched a public beta of its Forefront Server Security Management Console—a Web-based interface for remote administration of the software maker’s messaging and collaboration security tools—and announced support for EV (Extended Validation) SSL Certificates in its Internet Explorer 7 browser to help users differentiate between legitimate Web sites and fraudulent URLs such as those used in phishing schemes.

The company also added four new data sources that will feed its anti-phishing filters, the AusCERT (Australian Computer Emergency Response Team), BrandProtect, and Netcraft.

Gates said in his speech that in addition to bolstering its own technologies and bringing new security and authentication systems to market, Microsoft will work actively with other organizations to help forward its Trusted Computing vision.

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