Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Bugaboo

June 2000

By Mike Gould

Hopefully by now the digital dust has settled, but I am writing this in mid-May 2000, and the LoveBug ("Iloveyou") virus is all the rage. Those of us who use Macintosh computers or some variant of Unix were completely unaffected, but the rest of the world, saddled with Mr. Gates' product, took a hit.

The alert and patient readers of this column will recall me writing last July about viruses, their origins and how to prevent them (this article is available at http://mondodyne.com/b2b/smbiznet.17.shtml). I advised everyone to invest in anti-virus software and keep it up to date. So much for my advice; this virus bypassed most anti-virus software completely.

This all puts me in a frame of mind for a nice intemperate rant, so here goes:

Why Should You Believe Anything I Have to Say? My bias and background: I spend most of my hours staring at computer screens displaying the Mac desktop. I also have a PC on my desk at work and one at home, sitting next to my Macs in both places. I bounce back and forth between them because I am a Web wrangler and have to make sure my pages look good on both platforms. I am not an expert on Windows, but I use Win98 and can usually get it to do what I want it to.

I also spend a great deal of time working with Microsoft (MS) products; Word and Excel mostly, but occasionally PowerPoint. MS is the world's largest maker of Mac software. My browser of choice is, surprisingly to many who know of my opinions re MS, Internet Explorer 5. I also use Netscape to check my pages on both platforms.

I have been a computer support person specializing in Macs for 13 years or so, and have supported PC's in various capacities on and off during that time. I spent 6 months as admin of a Windows NT/Netware system, supporting 16 often-befuddled users of that potent combination.

Why Microsoft is Bad, and its Perpetrators Should be Jailed
As of this writing, MS is wrestling with the Department of Justice (DOJ), nailed on several counts of Abusing the Capitalist System, Acting like a Schoolyard Bully, and Trying To Take Over Western Civilization As We Know It. They should also be charged with Writing Bloated, Mediocre Software That Crashes A Lot and Not Giving a Hoot About Computer Security, but these offenses are apparently not yet against the law.

One of the main contentions of the DOJ is that MS, in tightly integrating its Web browser with its operating system, is abusing its monopolistic power in forcing people to use its product at the expense of its competitors'. This tight integration of operating system and application is how the LoveBug was able to do its thing: the virus, upon being activated in someone's system, would amble on over to the conveniently-located email program, and spread its seed through it. Then it's a short walk back over to the directory system where the virus was free to wreak its havoc on the unprotected sound and picture files residing on the harddrive.

This all happens courtesy of the underlying Visual Basic macro system (VBS) that lurks in the basement of Windows. Originally intended to aid in the automation of common computer tasks, VBS is the vehicle that virus writers drive to perpetrate such outrages as the Melissa virus, Word Macro viruses, and the recent Iloveyou incident. And folks, you ain't seen nothing yet.

The sick puppy who wrote the LoveBug found a new and novel way to get around the anti-virus efforts of the Windows world, exploiting a fairly massive hole in the security of the Win system itself: Windows allows background processes to occur without notifying the user. In other words, while you are reading the rest of your email, the virus is free to romp through your system, doing what ever its nefarious programmers told it to do. The anti-virus writers of the world were quick to respond, but the cat is now out of the bag and we can expect another round of copycat viruses that will get around the current protecting programs through a variety of variations in the code. And it's all the fault of the folks at MS who set things up this way in the first place.

Bill Gates was just on the tube, declaiming piously that breaking up MS would make it harder to fight future virus attacks. This curdles the blood of anyone who has watched MS's lame and always reactive efforts towards security in the past. Their half-hearted efforts at containing the prolific Word macro viruses are a case in point.

So the next time some smiling timebomb lands in your mailbox and blows up your files, blame MicroSoft, not just the nitwit who wrote it or the person who sent it to you.

Caveats
The usual way to avoid enclosure-based viruses is to never open enclosures from strangers; thanks to MS Outlook Express email software, you can now get viruses from close friends without them realizing what is happening. The solution? Jeez, I dunno; read up on the problem so you know what to look out for, hire a consultant to make sure your anti-virus software is up to date, get more involved in your computing then you want to; at the very least, don't use MS products for email (I recommend Eudora).

Or get a Mac.

(The opinions voiced above are the author's, and may not reflect those of his employers. Your mileage may vary. All models are 18 years or older. Contents may settle in shipping.)

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