Inside the MAPP program


Maarten Van Horenbeeck

Senior Program Manager

Slicing covert channels, foraging in remote memory pools, and setting off page faults

The crackling sound of crypto breaking, warm vodka martni

Hi everyone,

Maarten here - my team manages the Microsoft Active Protections Program (MAPP) at Microsoft. MAPP gives defenders a head start by sharing vulnerability information with them so that protection signatures are ready at the same time as security updates.

Recently we have seen a fair amount of discussion around the MAPP program. We know that many customers and partners have questions about how MAPP works and how it helps protect customers, therefore I wanted to take this opportunity to explain how we work to facilitate the creation of active protections.

Our goal with MAPP is to have a transparent, effective program in place. As such, we routinely evaluate MAPP partners to ensure they are adhering to program guidelines, taking action to correct any partner deviations from our program charter. We are also continually looking to strengthen our technical and legal controls to help protect our customers.

Why the MAPP program?

Microsoft developed the MAPP program in 2008 in response to an increase in reverse-engineering occurring around our monthly security update releases. We recognized that there were many tools available that enabled security researchers and attackers alike to very quickly identify the root cause of a vulnerability, given the update binaries. We noted that defenders, such as antivirus or intrusion prevention vendors, were in a race against attackers to reverse-engineer our updates in order to create protection signatures.

Before the MAPP program, defenders were at a disadvantage because detecting exploits is difficult, especially if a security vendor does not have full information on the types of conditions that may trigger successful exploitation. A vendor could write a signature for every attack file they receive, but they would need to respond to every file individually, or spend significant amounts of time reverse- engineering our security updates themselves. By providing technical details about a vulnerability directly to defenders, we strengthen their ability to create more effective and accurate signatures in a shorter timeframe.

MAPP also helps to provide a first line of defense for customers who need, or want, to do their own testing prior to deploying our updates. Microsoft thoroughly tests security updates prior to release, however, we do not have the ability to test with all Line of Business applications that corporations develop in-house.

Given the fact that some customers prefer to perform in-house testing, which may delay installation of the security update, we sought partners that our customers already deployed , and could help protect against exploitation of software vulnerabilities. We found those partners in the anti-malware and intrusion prevention industries.

How does the MAPP program work?

Microsoft operates the MAPP program, free of charge, for security vendors that meet our minimum requirements on both the capability they have to protect customers and the number of customers they represent. One can find detailed information on our admission criteria here. We carefully vet and validate these criteria prior to admitting a new partner.

Each month, our team of security engineers work diligently to create information for our partners that helps them detect the exploitation of security vulnerabilities in our products. This data includes, but is not always limited to:

  • A detailed technical write-up on the vulnerability;
  • A step-by-step process that they can follow to parse an affected file format, or network protocol, that identifies which elements need to have particular values, or exceed specific boundaries, in order to trigger the security vulnerability;
  • Information on how to detect the vulnerability, or exploitation thereof (e.g. event log entries, or stack traces);
  • A Proof-of-Concept file that is in itself not malicious, but contains the specific condition that will trigger the vulnerability. Partners can leverage this file to test detection signatures they develop using the step-by-step process we provide.

We provide this information to participating vendors shortly in advance of the release of a security update. We base the timeframe on partners' ability to release effective protections, while limiting the risk, should the information be inadvertently disclosed.

Once we provide the information, our engineers remain available to discuss, in detail, steps security vendors can take to detect exploitation of a vulnerability.

Our team also follows up with the partner vendors to better understand which vulnerabilities attackers are exploiting in the wild, and where we need to improve guidance to account for specific exploitation methods. We regularly update guidance after the initial release to help increase the ability of partners to protect customers.

How the MAPP program helps protect customers

The MAPP program helps vendors build comprehensive detection for vulnerabilities that Microsoft acknowledges or addresses in a security bulletin. MAPP partners are not permitted to release their protection in advance of the security update release.

For example, In the case of an Office exploit, our detection guidance will describe how to parse the Office file and validate which part of the file, and which elements need to be malformed in order to trigger the vulnerability. Without MAPP data, vendors would –in many cases— need to “guess” which values could trigger a crash, and which could not, which reduces the effectiveness of their signatures.

Detection technology developed using MAPP data tends to be more accurate and more comprehensive than detection built without access to the information. Each month after the bulletin release, Microsoft follows up with each vendor individually to track the use of MAPP guidance across the signature base of our partners. When we identify that certain guidance is difficult to implement for our partner base, we work with partners to understand how we can improve the program and enable them to detect these threats more effectively.

The vulnerability addressed in MS10-087, CVE-2010-3333 is a good example. This particular issue affected our Rich Text Format (RTF) parser in Microsoft Office. Given we have had a small sample of bulletins in this particular component; many vendors did not have an effective way of parsing the file type. We worked with our MAPP vendors to develop a tool that would quickly identify malicious files, and distributed it to our partners, despite previously addressing the issue in a security update.

Risks and limitations

We recognize that there is the potential for vulnerability information to be misused. In order to limit this as much as possible, we have strong non-disclosure agreements (NDA)with our partners. Microsoft takes breaches of its NDAs very seriously. When partners do not successfully protect our intellectual property, we take action, which may include removing the partner from our program.

In addition, we make sure to only release data shortly in advance of the security update. Prior to MAPP, vendors released detection within hours to days following the release of a security update. Today, we send MAPP data to our partners just as far in advance as they need to get that work done, only now, the protection is usually available when we release the update.

But MAPP also has its limitations. For instance, MAPP does not protect against the exploitation of unknown, zero-day vulnerabilities. In order for MAPP to be effective, Microsoft must be aware of the vulnerability before it can distribute guidance to its MAPP partners.

Additionally, MAPP is only useful to the degree that a product can protect against exploitation of the vulnerability. Intrusion Prevention Vendors may not always be best-positioned to detect exploits for Office vulnerabilities, as they may be encoded in a number of different ways across the network. In the same vein, host-based anti-malware products are often not best-positioned to protect against network- based exploits, such as the recent RDP vulnerability.

We recommend our customers work closely with their protection vendors to understand the abilities and limitations of each individual product.

The Value of MAPP

We believe that helping to strengthen community-based defense is key to protecting customers. The MAPP program provides a critical head-start to defenders, while working to minimize risk.

Microsoft is committed to helping customers by providing protection vendors across a wide variety of security industries with valuable protection information. The MAPP program is an important part of this strategy. While risk can never be completely eliminated, we believe the benefits of the program to our customers far outweigh the risks.



Maarten Van Horenbeeck
Senior Program Manager, Microsoft Security Response Center