Tech Tip: August 2003 sets the record for Internet security problems

By Jonathan Yarden

The month of August was a stressful month for most computer users, as numerous worms—namely MSBlast, Nachi, and SoBig.F—raged across the Internet. All of these worms caused problems, but SoBig.F surely takes the prize for being the worst of the bunch.

I suspect that SoBig.F will unfortunately set the bar higher for the next Internet worm. SoBig.F continues to knock mail servers offline and frustrate users with countless copies of itself. Add that to the chaos and network problems caused by MSBlast and Nachi, and you've got a lot of angry people.

The combined financial fallout of SoBig.F, MSBlast, and Nachi will easily be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. And, as of this writing, none of these worms were showing signs of stopping, even when fixes are available. This is a watershed event for the Internet, but even more so for Microsoft, as it continues to be the target for such attacks.

Security is a fragile thing

After last month, there should be no doubt in anyone's mind that simple software defects can and will cause worldwide damage. Yet there are many questions and few answers for how to prevent this type of problem.

Microsoft's "kitchen sink" approach to Windows certainly doesn't help, especially when you consider the MSBlast and Nachi worms. Why does Microsoft keep stuffing things into Windows that most people don't need?

Microsoft's efforts to dominate the software market and construct artificial barriers to competition are now its own worst enemy. The software giant may have won the world over with Windows, but now it needs to figure out how to support the software. And I don't mean telling people they have to continually upgrade Windows to get better reliability.

But this time, most of the world has noted Microsoft's cruddy software security record. The multibillion-dollar Microsoft empire gets zero points for anything it does correctly, and we're back to square one when it comes to Microsoft's accountability and Windows' reliability.

Windows is still fragile: Recent worms prove once again that several years and millions of dollars later, it only takes a small rock to break a glass house.

Old worms die hard

And we're still not finished cleaning up after previous worms. Nimda, Code Red, and SQL Slammer regularly make scanning appearances where I work, and they occasionally nail poorly maintained customer systems.

But keeping software up to date is a problem in itself on a number of levels. Microsoft is so frustrated that it's considering making software updates automatic. I'm sure that's a comfort to some, but I think it's a terrible idea—and it won't work anyway. When you're talking about tens of megabytes for service packs, a 56-K modem isn't going to cut it.

August 2003 will go down in the record books as the worst month for Internet security since the Melissa worm. That is, of course, until the next worm comes around and does even more damage.

So how do you fix the problem? In my opinion, you can't really fix it because there are too many older Windows installations in the world, poorly maintained and in dire need of service packs.

But I have a simple solution that I think would work. Why doesn't Microsoft spend some of its multibillion-dollar cash chest and distribute Windows service packs free on CD-ROM? No charge to anyone, just put boxes of self-booting CDs in stores nationwide. Put in the CD-ROM, start your computer, and it fixes your problems. But then again, if Windows didn't have bugs, nobody would upgrade.

Jonathan Yarden is the senior UNIX system administrator, network security manager, and senior software architect for a regional ISP.

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