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Last Updated: Friday, 13 February, 2004, 18:06 GMT
Microsoft probes secret code leak
Microsoft chairman, Bill Gates (AP)
It is the second security worry for Bill Gates' company this week
Microsoft is investigating how part of its Windows operating system source code found its way onto the net.

Microsoft spokesman Tom Pilla said it was not known how the chunks of Windows 2000 and NT code had leaked out.

"We are currently investigating these postings and are working with the appropriate law enforcement authorities," he said.

More than 90% of PCs use Microsoft software, so this leak of intellectual property is a concern for the company.

"It's illegal for third parties to post Microsoft source code, and we take such activity very seriously," added Mr Pilla.

Top secret

Source code is the basic language used to create programs. It is extremely valuable because it is similar to the blueprint to any system or design, and is a tightly-guarded secret.

It is very difficult to know whether it is something that could be used by the people to do harm
David Emm, McAfee

Access to the code could give its competitors a better understanding of how Microsoft's technology works.

Microsoft said it did not yet know the source of leak, or how many people have access to it on the net, but confirmed it accounted for about 15% of the total code it uses.

The code has appeared on several underground websites and net chat rooms.

It has been widely downloaded across the net and being openly discussed on specialist technology websites.

"The source code leak spread quickly in the underground," said Ken Dunham of the security consultancy iDefense.

Microsoft said there was no indication the code leak was a result of a breach of Microsoft's corporate network.

Instead it seems the leak could be a software developer, but the company has yet to to pinpoint a suspect.

There is concern that hackers who get copies of the code could find it easier to break into systems running Windows software.

But Microsoft said that was unlikely since the code comprised of relatively small proportion of the total source code.

Too early

Security experts have said computer users and companies running Windows 2000 and NT should not be concerned about the leaked code at the moment.

Microsoft chairman, Bill Gates (AP)
The code contains valuable information about Windows
David Emm, security expert at McAfee's Avert research unit, told BBC News Online it was too early to say what the impact of the leak would be.

"It is a small amount, and Microsoft are suggesting it is not much good on its own. But it is very difficult to know whether it is something that could be used by the people to do harm," he said.

"The analogy to use is if someone wants to break into my house, they would not necessarily need a house plan. If they know there was a section of my house that had a window not covered by an alarm, that would make it easier for them."

But businesses have been advised to be vigilant and beef up their security teams.

"They should be keeping a careful eye on their IT systems and scrutinise their security systems for unusual traffic," said Tarek Meliti, technical director of server hosting company TDM Group.

It is the second security headache for the company in a week. On Tuesday, it admitted a flaw in its latest Windows operating systems that could allow hackers access to many of the hundreds of millions of computers worldwide.

The BBC's James Ingham
"Microsoft's rivals could use the information to gain a better understanding of the technology"

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