Microsoft Security Essentials beta out just when it’s needed most

New version comes amid scary zero-day attack news

As Microsoft and everyone else running a Windows shop scrambles to thwart a “highly dangerous zero-day vulnerability,” the software giant stays on schedule, today releasing a beta version of the next Microsoft Security Essentials anti-malware service.

Security Essentials, launched in September 2009, is free software that protects computers running ”genuine” versions of Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7. On a blog post Tuesday, Microsoft’s Brandon LeBlanc itemizes the new features of the beta:

Windows firewall integration. During setup, Security Essentials gives users the option of turning the Windows Firewall on or off.

Enhanced protection for web-based threats. Security Essentials integrates with the Internet Explorer Web browser to protect against Web-based threats.

New protection engine. The beta offers enhanced performance, detection and cleanup of malware.

Network inspection system. Security Essentials will now have built-in protection from network-based exploits.

It’s unlikely the new Microsoft Security Essentials beta will protect against the latest zero-day vulnerability since so little is known about it -- except that it’s bad. As Network World's Jon Brodkin reported, the threat "allows attackers to hack systems using malicious shortcut files. The vulnerability could be exploited remotely, but is more likely to be exploited using removable drives, such as USB sticks, according to Microsoft." The company said it has some "workarounds" to minimize the threat but no patch as of yet.

Security Essentials ranked fourth in market share -- at 7.48 percent -- among free computer security software offerings, according to a study released earlier this month by Opswat, a security software vendor.

This latest beta version of Security Essentials is available now on a limited, first-come-first-served basis in English, Israel and Brazilian Portuguese. It will be available in China in Simplified Chinese later this year.

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