Microsoft improves security with Outlook upgrade

Microsoft last week spelled out new features, such as improved indexing and beefed-up security measures, that will become available when an upgrade to its Outlook email client software is released next week as part of the Office XP suite.

          Microsoft last week spelled out new features, such as improved indexing and beefed-up security measures, that will become available when an upgrade to its Outlook email client software is released next week as part of the Office XP suite.

          Outlook 2002 is scheduled to be formally launched next Thursday at a press conference in New York, along with the rest of Office XP. The new email client will also ship with the upcoming Service Pack 1 release of Microsoft's Exchange 2000 server software, which is scheduled to become available this summer.

          Last week, officials from Microsoft's Outlook development team said they've been working to make the widely used software more secure when the new release ships. Attackers have repeatedly used Outlook as a conduit for Visual Basic Script worms, with two, dubbed Mawanella and Homepage, having struck this month alone.

          But Outlook program managers Marc Olson and David Raissipour say Outlook 2002 won't allow object model programming to run from email messages or attachments, which could shut off one of the most popular ways for hackers to propagate worms. Outlook address books currently can be accessed by worms if a patch issued last year by Microsoft hasn't been installed.

          Outlook 2002 also includes attachment-blocking default settings and will be able to alert users if any malicious code tries to run and execute commands within the email software, according to Olson and Raissipour. In addition, they say, the software will give users the ability to stop such attacks once they're detected.

          Other new features include indexing abilities that allow users to search for messages based on when they were sent, who they were received from or sent to and the text in the subject lines and bodies of the messages. Outlook 2002 messages will be written with Word as the default text editing tool, and users will be able to send documents directly from Word via the email client.

          David Ferris, an analyst at Ferris Research in San Francisco, says making Outlook more secure would be a good move on Microsoft's part. "It's clear that Outlook is the tool that people are using [to spread worms]," he says.

          Another important new feature in Outlook 2002, Ferris adds, is a tool that's supposed to let users know whether the people listed in their address books, or others who have sent messages, are available online. That capability works through integration with Microsoft's MSN Messenger instant messaging service, he says.

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