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Could Microsoft's Vulnerabilities Kill E-Business?

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Did you happen to notice? Last week, networks were once again faced with an insidious new worm. This one is called Swen (alias I-Worm.Swen and W32/Swen.A@mm and noted as a variant of W32/Gibe.D@MM, or Gibe.D). I know, "Swen" sounds like the name of a Scandinavian with a lisp, but it's real, and it's something else!

Introducing Swen--Imitation Is Its Greatest Attribute

Swen is a worm that uses a vulnerability in Microsoft's Internet Explorer to execute directly from Microsoft's Outlook email application. Swen first appeared on September 18, 2003, and at this writing, is currently listed as only a "moderate threat." Nonetheless, Swen stands as testimony to how far hackers are willing to go to plunder our information systems.

Swen can arrive via email, across network shares, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), and Kazaa file-sharing systems and then lie dormant in the email that is housed on your iSeries or Windows or Linux or UNIX or mainframe email system. But once delivered to the Windows client machine, it will attach itself to the Windows registry so that it can automatically start each time the system is booted. It generates its own unique registry key, using random characters, so that the user or technician cannot easily spot it.

Master of Deception

Swen's installation process is a masterpiece of deception. It first presents a dialog to the unsuspecting user that mimics the official Microsoft security update message. It tells the user that a new Microsoft update is now available and then asks the user if it should install the update. If the user clicks Yes, Swen displays a dialog message showing the progress of the installation. If the user clicks No, Swen installs itself anyway, invisibly. And Swen is a smarty! If the computer is already infected, Swen cordially displays a message saying that the Microsoft update is not needed. It's the quality of these spoofed messages that is so impressive. They look and feel exactly like the dialogs from Microsoft, and it's very easy for users to be fooled.

Bogus Error Messages

During its installation, Swen builds its own SMTP and Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP) server modules and then modifies the registry startup keys for BAT, SCR, EXE, REG, and PIF files so that it has complete control over all executable files on the machine. It then displays "Memory access key violation in kernal32 at (random address)." It does this to convince the user to reboot the computer. Once the computer is rebooted, Swen can get to its real task of stealing your information.

It scans your hard drive for Web pages and email addresses. If it doesn't have access to your email account, it will throw up yet another mimicked Microsoft dialog, telling you that there's been an exception in the MAPI. It then asks you to enter in the information that it needs: email name, password, server name, address book location, etc. Once it has this information, it will send itself to others, using your account information and password to access your address book and to ply the network. Oh yes, and it will send these emails using your personal email address as the sender.

Disinfecting

Once you've been infected by Swen, don't expect your antivirus software to be of much service. Why? Because Swen modifies the registry entries for the names of nearly 50 antivirus and firewall programs to disable them. It also modifies the registry key of the Regedit tools to prevent you from restoring an uncorrupted version the registry.

The only means to recover the system is to obtain an external scanning tool--tools that have been made available at Symantec or F-Secure or another antivirus site. But unfortunately, you'll have to get one of these tools using someone else's machine--a machine that is uninfected. Why? Because your machine will be, essentially, toast!

For a more detailed description of Swen and the remedies to get rid of it, you should check out the F-Secure site where Swen was first reported. You'll be impressed by how completely Swen has psyched us all out.

The Science of Creating Rogue Programs

Swen is important for many reasons. Its potential is quite frightening, not only because of the nature of its blended threat, but because it strikes at the heart of any trust we might still have in Microsoft's security apparatus. It's the kind of worm that makes you realize how far hackers have advanced.

Today, each new worm or virus that appears has evolved from predecessors programs, so we're witnessing a real evolution of rogue programming. This should be a sobering thought, for though Swen is the current golden-haired super-villain of advanced viral technology, it will not keep that role for long. It will definitely be followed by another, more potent, more dangerous infection.

Yet consider what that means. Today, Swen mimics Microsoft security update messages during the infection process! It gives us the Microsoft logo, instructs us in the Microsoft jargon, and even tells us encouraging, proactive words about its progress as it goes about "protecting" our machines. What will tomorrow bring? It's only a matter of time, with this kind of technology, before the entire Microsoft security and virus alert apparatus will be compromised and mimicked. Maybe not by Swen, but by an Inga worm or a Bridget worm, or some other appropriately named creation. And at that point, who will ever trust Microsoft again?

And the rate of viral evolution is accelerating. The day after Swen was discovered by F-Secure--and on every following day, from September 19 through 22--new rogues hit the Internet. These included Backdoor.Peeper, Backdoor.Hazzer, PWSteal.Lemir.E, Backdoor.Surdux, Trojan.Abaxo, W97M.Autch, Trojan.Gaslide.Intd, and Backdoor.Roxy.B. Eight new rogues in four days! Though antivirus definition files were quickly made available for each of these rogues, it's becoming clear that we're on the verge of a complete meltdown of Windows-based Internet privacy and functionality.

All of these threats have been laid at the doorstep of Microsoft. Granted, security engineers pooh-pooh some of them. After all, some of these merely compromise the security of our information--our precious MS Word files and our Excel spreadsheets--and are not particularly technically interesting. But other blended threats, like Swen, are truly insidious. Yet, alas, these are only the ones that have been identified in the wild. There's no telling what else is being cooked up in hacker test tubes or lurking as an "exploit" not yet discovered.

The point is, these rogue programs are no longer casual threats to our continued operations; they are well-financed, targeted attacks, aimed to destroy our reliance upon the Microsoft products. More are coming. When will they stop?

Californians Will Vote on a Recall--of Internet Technology

"So what? It's a risk!" you might say. "It's the technology! It's the way things are! Right?"

Well, perhaps! But perhaps things are about to change--and not necessarily for the better. Why? Because government has begun to address the vulnerabilities of email, and it's only a matter of time before it will also address the vulnerabilities we're exposed to by computer viruses.

Several months ago, Congress was up in arms over the privacy issues created by simple spam. The media picked up this story, and the TV and radio stations frothed the problem to high public awareness. People who had never done more than click their mice for email were--according to the reports--outraged that their email addresses were being used by spammers. Analysts created spreadsheets to show how corporations were losing thousands of man hours to spam. Congress held hearings. Experts testified. Committees were formed. Email providers genuflected. Things got a little better, right?

Then, last Tuesday, on September 23, California became the first state to ban spam outright! Now, in California, any unsolicited email that you send will make you liable for a $1,000 fine, per infraction. Californians have made unsolicited email illegal to label spammers as real criminals--a fate they truly deserve.

So this is a good law, right?

But think again, in the context of our friend Swen! This law is going to wreck havoc on the Internet. Here's how.

Think about Swen. Swen can turn anyone's Windows-based machine into a veritable spam factory, transforming every personal and corporate email account into a serious legal and financial liability. It can do this undetected without the permission of the operator.

So do the math! Count up the number of addresses in your Outlook address book, multiply that by $1,000, and recognize that a single cycle of Swen's automatic SMTP activity could potentially bankrupt you, your family, or your corporation. If you have 100 email addresses, your liability--should Swen or its successors attack--is $100,000. How much liability are you willing to shoulder for the privilege of receiving email through Microsoft Outlook? How much liability will your company shoulder to allow you to maintain your connection to the Internet?

So, ironically, on October 7, at the same time that Californians are voting on the recall of their governor, many voters will be coming to terms with the ramifications of this new anti-spam law. Many will see the writing on the wall: Even with all their antivirus software installed and their firewalls configured, they can be legally and financially at risk should something like Swen attack their machines. And if they vote with their mouse-clicks, they'll disconnect from the Internet. A rogue like Swen could force them to that conclusion.

Should this prediction prove to be accurate, it starts a whole cascade of other, unanswerable questions. For instance, what should Microsoft do that it isn't doing already? The businessman's answer to that one is "Get more lawyers."

Microsoft is already settling a $1.8 billion class-action lawsuit in California, related to its designation as a monopoly status. Imagine the potential liability in a class-action suit when thousands of individuals and corporations take Microsoft to court for Outlook's vulnerabilities to spam.

I know, I know! As programmers and managers, we want to "fix" Microsoft's technical problem. But the point is that now its technical problems are moving beyond our abilities to help them. They say they've done their best, and it's clearly not enough.

So do the math once again! Maybe you have more than 100 email addresses; maybe you have 200. That's $200,000 of liability on your shoulders. Now, as a therapy exercise, put your right hand on your Internet cable, take a deep breath, and yank it out of the wall!

Don't you feel better already?

Dark Age Approaching?

Now let's walk down the hall, to the offices of our CFOs. Tell him about the capabilities of Swen and California's new law. And ask him, "If our customers turn their back on the Internet, how long can e-business survive?"

Ask him, "Could our business return to the days of pre-Internet commerce?"

It could never happen, you say. Management would never--could never--back away from its strategic goals for e-business.

But wait! Do the math again! Your company has a customer database of how many email addresses? And 25,000 times $1,000 is how much? $25,000,000!

Can you put yourself in the place of your CFO? "Tom," he will say, "this Internet dog just won't hunt! Our lawyers say there's just too much liability!"

Now, do you hear those patch cords being yanked from their sockets? Do you see the look of relief on your CFO's face?

It could never happen! Could it? E-business gone! A memory! A myth! Like one of those old Scandinavian folktales of the blond superhero, trammeled by a wily villain. Like Loki! Like Swen!

No, you're probably right. So relax! Swen probably won't turn off the juice to the Internet. Well, maybe Swen will dim a few lights, but Microsoft will fix its problems--you know, like it's fixed all its other problems.

And with that comforting thought, we can shut up shop, turn out the lights, and head for home. Who knows, as we turn to leave, we might even joke about it. You know, like the late comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen.

"Say 'Goodnight,' Swen!" we mutter to our machines as they glow in the dark.

But wait. Did you hear that, coming out of the Windows Media Player?

"GOOD NIGHT, SWEN," it said.

Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press.

Thomas Stockwell

Thomas M. Stockwell is an independent IT analyst and writer. He is the former Editor in Chief of MC Press Online and Midrange Computing magazine and has over 20 years of experience as a programmer, systems engineer, IT director, industry analyst, author, speaker, consultant, and editor.  

 

Tom works from his home in the Napa Valley in California. He can be reached at ITincendiary.com.

 

 

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