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Microsoft touts Hotmail security adds; users complain of account hacks

Details plans to beef up e-mail service's security; users wish they were in place now

May 19, 2010 04:14 PM ET

Computerworld - Microsoft will beef up security in the revamped Windows Live Hotmail, including tying a user's account to a specific PC, a company executive said today.

Some Hotmail users whose accounts have been recently hacked say Microsoft's security improvements can't come too soon.

The updated Hotmail is slated to start rolling out June 15, and should reach all users within six weeks, said Walter Harp, Hotmail's director of product management.

Microsoft is adding what Harp dubbed "proofs" to Hotmail to secure accounts against hijacking, or let users more easily recover control if their account has been snatched by criminals. Among those proofs will be one that links a specific computer to a user's account.

"You'll be able to set your computer as a proof," said Harp, referring to the link between a PC and an account.

Other Web services, including Facebook and Google's Gmail, already offer similar ties to stymie account hijacking. Facebook, for example, recently added a setting that lets users approve the devices they use to log in; if an account is accessed from an unapproved device, the user is notified.

Google tracks log-ins and warns Gmail users of suspicious patterns, such as an attempt to log-in from a foreign country, or multiple failed log-in attempts.

"We think we've done it a little better than Gmail," argued Harp. "My mom's not going to get it if Gmail told her she had tried to log in from a different IP address."

Although the PC-to-account link won't be offered as one of Hotmail's new identity proofs until later this year -- likely this fall, said Harp, when Microsoft again updates the service -- others will debut at the launch next month of what Microsoft has codenamed "Wave 4" of its Web e-mail service.

"Your mobile phone will be an additional proof," said Harp, explaining that if a user loses control of his or her account -- and thus has no way to reset the password to regain access -- Hotmail will notify the user by phone, then send a new password to that phone. "We'll do that if either a human or malware gets into your account," Harp said.

Phones play another role in Hotmail's enhanced security: Users can request that Microsoft send a one-time password to their phones via SMS. Harp envisioned this being used by people logging in at public places, such as Internet cafes, libraries or unprotected Wi-Fi hotspots. The feature came out of conversations with focus groups in less-developed countries, where more people connect to the Internet at cafes.

"The general idea is that you'd use this to be particularly cautious at a public computer, which for all you know may be infected with keylogging malware," said Harp.

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