Microsoft's security team will help third-party developers of Windows applications and add-ons find and fix bugs in their software, the company has said.
The program, dubbed Microsoft Vulnerability Research (MSVR), is a formalisation of things the company currently does, not a brand-new initiative, said Andrew Cushman, the company's director of security response and outreach, from the Black Hat security conference.
"This is work we're already doing," he said. "We'll report vulnerabilities we find in third-party software and we'll work with them to identify, resolve and mitigate those vulnerabilities."
Microsoft has, at times, gone public with work it's done in collaboration with other software vendors. One of the most recent examples was in May and June, when Microsoft worked with Apple on flaws in both its own Internet Explorer browser and Apple's Safari. Then, however, Microsoft took shots at its rival, telling users in one of its security advisories that they should stop using Apple's browser until it was fixed.
Earlier this year, Microsoft helped out Yahoo by issuing a "kill bit" update through its Windows Update service that disabled a buggy ActiveX control installed by Yahoo on PCs that played tunes purchased from its now-defunct online music store.
According to Cushman, Microsoft's security researchers will report bugs they find during their work to third-party developers, and co-ordinate their work to make sure that details of those vulnerabilities don't go public before a patch is in place. He also said Microsoft would help those third-party companies in other ways, but was somewhat vague about the extent of that help.
When asked if Microsoft would lend its Windows Update service to pushing third-party updates to Windows users, for example, he hesitated for several seconds before answering: "That's a hard question. We're always looking to provide the best experience for our customers, so we'll examine all aspects, including vulnerability identification, other mitigations and as a final link, detection and deployment.
"But I can't say we would use Windows Update."
Microsoft won't issue security advisories for third party software as it does for its own programs, said Cushman. Instead, according to a follow-up fact sheet that the company's public relations firm provided, outside vendors will be given "the necessary information and assistance to develop an update to address the vulnerability."
Cushman said the move was in Microsoft's own interest, but also argued that it would be a win for everyone. "Some may question [our motives] but this is for the good of customers and the enterprise, and will help protect their environment of Microsoft [software] and other software as well.
"It will raise the level of security, and is good for the whole ecosystem," he added.
However, Cushman also cited the rise in vulnerabilities and exploits in third-party software as a reason for debuting MSVR. "The threat landscape has changed. With Vista, [attackers] are finding it harder to exploit Microsoft's software on Vista than third-party programs."
Third-party software is increasingly targeted by hackers, with flaws in popular add-ons such as Apple's QuickTime and Adobe Systems's Flash frequently making news. Symantec, however, noted earlier this year that Microsoft's ActiveX technology accounted for the overwhelming majority of browser vulnerabilities in the second half of 2007.
In the end, Cushman said, we're all in this together. "It takes a village," he said. "All of us need to co-operate."
Earlier this week, Cushman announced other initiatives that Microsoft will launch in the next two months, including one that will add exploitability predictions to its patch bulletins and another that will give some security companies information about upcoming bug fixes before the patches are released to the public.
"The reaction has been very positive," Cushman added. "Vendors are quite keen on knowing about the Active Protection Program. And there's been a little bit of 'wow' from people here at Black Hat."