Time to Recall MS Windows?

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Imagine you bought a car to drive the kids to school each day. The car works fine, gets pretty good gas mileage, and negotiates the traffic with ease. It's got its quirks, and not everything works the way you imagine it should. But then, life is kind of like that. Yeah, it is!

Then one day, you get a letter in the mail. It's a recall notice from the manufacturer. According to the letter, there's a safety issue with the car: In certain circumstances, the car will suddenly start itself, put itself into gear, and step on the accelerator. The letter advises you to take the car to the nearest dealer immediately, where this defect will be remedied at no cost to you. The letter also offers an apology for the inconvenience this may cause.

Of course, that's exactly what you do, cursing and swearing under your breath at the manufacturer for wasting your time. But you do it anyway because your safety--and the safety of your family--is at stake.

From Cars to Operating Systems: Where's the Difference?

Now, consider this same scenario in light of Microsoft Windows operating systems and the recent epidemic of email viruses and worms. The products Microsoft sells are supposed to transport your information along the Information Superhighway to and from your work, and they do a reasonable job.

Also consider that, like the automobile, our personal computers are no longer luxuries, but necessary tools, containing all the precious information that is vital to our livelihoods. In fact, these files are like information passengers and are so vital that most responsible people have added safety equipment: We've become savvy about viruses, Trojan horses, and worms and have gone to the extra trouble and expense to install firewalls, anti-virus software, spam scanners, etc.

Misplaced Anger

Now imagine this. One day, you receive an angry email from a colleague. This person informs you that your computer has sent a virus that has automatically started the colleague's email system, plundered his address book, and broadcast the virus to all of his business associates.

Of course, we would all be chagrined, embarrassed, and angry. So what does a responsible person do? You do your research! You go to of the Web site of your anti-virus software company! But what do you discover there? The virus or worm at fault has actually taken advantage of a "known flaw" or "known security hole" in the operating system on your computer. It doesn't affect other operating systems, only your operating system. What operating system is that? Microsoft Windows!

What's wrong with this picture? Why didn't the manufacturer tell you? Why did this occur? Who is to blame?

A Legacy of Irresponsible Code

If you look at the current number of viruses that are being managed by companies, the Microsoft Windows product line tops the list with an incredible 1,494 virus write-ups. This is documented by Symantec's Virus Encyclopedia. That is a greater number than all other virus/worm-affected products combined, including those related to hoaxes, cell phones, and other computer operating systems. What does it tell you? It shows a real lack of quality control and poor engineering on Microsoft's part. It also shows an inability to address the issue of security with any credibility.

Last week's scourge of virus/worm attacks--which included W32.Squirm@mm, Backdoor.Sdbot.P, Downloader.Dluca, W32.Sobig.F@mm, W32.Dinkdink.Worm, and W32.Welchia.Worm--is just the latest example. All of these infectious agents take advantage of Window's incredible permeability.

One particularly fearsome worm, W32.Sobig.F@mm, builds its own little SMTP mail server on the recipient's machine, scans the hard drive, and then starts mailing itself to any email accounts it has found. But that's not the scariest part. This cloning activity only goes for a certain period of time. It stops its nefarious activities on September 10 and then waits for further instructions from a controlling program, which it will receive through the Internet. What might those instructions be? Why September 10? Visions of 9/11 immediately crop up in everyone's mind.

Vigilante Worms

Another worm, called W32.Welchia.Worm, is a vigilante attempt created by one frustrated but enterprising worm-engineer: It goes onto unprotected Windows servers and repairs the damage done by the W32.Blaster.D worm that ravaged those same Windows servers the previous week, using the "known security hole" of Microsoft's Remote Procedure Call (RPC). Then, when it's all done, it patches the hole that allowed itself to access the server and drops dead. It is, essentially, a de-worming worm. Noble worm!

Would that Microsoft de-worm itself permanently. Physician, heal thyself!

Meanwhile, UNIX system operators must be smirking glibly. Their operating systems are not directly impacted. However, even though their mail servers (and the OS/400-based servers as well) are not affected by these particular viruses or worms, their email accounts no doubt harbor the email messages that contain the infection. In essence, these other server operating systems are delivering a coup de grace to Windows-based machines, spreading the infections without suffering the symptoms.

Who's to Blame? Who Cares?

At this point, it's pointless to further blame Microsoft for the flaws in its products or to bewail our own culpability in embracing these products. But we do need to get them fixed.

In my opinion, it is time for us to demand that Microsoft begin a product recall campaign, supervised by external security experts, to guarantee that its products meet some minimum security standards.

Microsoft's own efforts in this matter have clearly failed in the past, and its current method of posting information and fixes on its Web site doesn't cut it any more. Customer's can't follow the endless trail of URLs. It takes hours to identify if you've got the right patch, and then you're not guaranteed that it will work properly without crashing your machine.

Instead, I believe Microsoft should be required to directly contact registered users of its software. After all, Microsoft already makes certain it knows who you are, in case you want to pirate their precious code or avoid their endless marketing efforts. It should also offer its customers a complete replacement of any of its Windows operating systems--free of Internet and network-related flaws--at no cost to the original customer. And if the customer doesn't know how to install the new system, Microsoft should be required to set up service centers where the customer can get the service. Again, I believe this should be free. In other words, Microsoft should be mandated to recall its products.

Yeah! Right!

Of course, you know as well as I that this will never happen. Meanwhile, on this year's anniversary of 9/11, many Internet security experts are anticipating a sudden upsurge in virus/worm-related attacks. It appears that the first wave of these attacks have begun already, with W32.Sobig.F running unchecked across the Windows infrastructure. If this expected threat proves to be real, all Windows customers may find they are sitting ducks, tethered at the end of the Internet by a flawed Windows-based product that is waiting for explicit commands from some unknown external program.

Perhaps we could suffer a few quirks and glitches in Windows 10 years ago. But not any more. The time to recall these products has long since passed.

Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press. He may be reached for comment at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..