Not an Elite Threat

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2006-01-05 Print this article Print

I was very concerned at first too, but it always seemed to me that this was not in the "elite" level of vulnerabilities. Those are reserved for network worms, the most famous of which were Blaster and Sasser.
These are attacks that can exploit a remote computer purely by sending commands and data to it over the network. These are the attacks you can suffer just by installing a new copy of Windows and putting the machine on the Internet to get updates.

The WMF flaw suffers by comparison to these problems. No computers can be attacked without the user actually clicking on a link or opening an attachment. There are many other mitigating factors, although the one I just mentioned really is the most important. And the fact that a patch has now been issued definitely ratchets down the threat level. At least I think it should, but I was one of the ones who never thought it was a first-class emergency anyway, and Im not alone either, although I get the feeling Im in the minority.

For advice on how to secure your network and applications, as well as the latest security news, visit Ziff Davis Internets Security IT Hub. Neither, it appears, did Microsoft. Im sure they released the patch today mostly to preempt the third-party patches that were appearing and because of the anxiety out there, not because of the actual level of threat. The reason for regular monthly patch days is to let IT plan for updates and do them on a regular schedule, so its only worth going out of cycle when the threat is really urgent or when IT is so worried that they want it anyway. In this case I think the hysterical press this subject got put enough customer pressure on Microsoft that it was worth going out of cycle, after it was worth "accidentally" leaking a copy of the patch a couple of days ago.

So what explains the difference in opinions? Of course Im a partisan here, so theres a limit to how objective I can be, but I see a couple of factors. One is a dispute over how many users are dumb enough to open attachments in messages from strangers on an unprotected computer, or click links in them. My contention is that almost anyone who could get hit by this probably has already had their computer compromised by adware or some other form of malware. Nothing is added to the malware "ecosystem" by compromising these machines with the WMF flaw; theyre already owned.

Ive had a theory for years that the systems being infected with all the more prominent worms were being serially infected with all of them. Its not hard to see why, either because of the suckers who own the computers opening every attachment that comes their way or outsiders using the backdoors to install new malware. But there are large, very large numbers of computers that never get any of these attacks and barely ever see the messages with them, because they are properly protected. Its easy and not too expensive to do so.

And with every day that passes, I feel more comfortable with my outlook. I must say though that Im surprised we never even see a moderately widespread attack. Its over a week now since proofs of concept were available, and still all I see are experiments. Last weekend the consensus was that when everyone came back to their computers after the holiday, they were heading in like lambs to the slaughter. Malicious WMFs would spread backdoors and pornography throughout the Internet.

The way I see it, the WMF vulnerability is perhaps slightly worse than a bad mail worm episode, and its been a long time since any of them were serious problems. The recent Sober attack was serious, but hardly a crisis. We havent had a really bad one since that MyDoom.M episode I mentioned earlier, and that one got all the attention only because of large numbers of submissions; thats not the same thing necessarily as large numbers of infections.

The longer we go without the sky falling, the more likely it is to stay up. Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. He can be reached at Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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