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By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2003-12-29 Print this article Print

: And now for the bad news ..."> So few good tidings. Sadly, the bad news in 2003 weighed more heavily:
  • This inning starts off with a triple for Microsoft: Three significant, remotely-exploitable vulnerabilities. Windows isnt the only operating system with security problems, but two of these problems were (or at least they should be considered as) the most urgent and dangerous problems in widely-deployed software. One hopes Microsoft is as disappointed in themselves for these problems as we are with them.
    1. The DCOM RPC buffer overflow vulnerability that led to the Blaster worm.
    2. January 2003 brought us the Slammer worm. The Slammer worm, utilizing an innovative UDP broadcast mechanism, set a world record for speed of deployment that will be broken about as easily as Cal Ripkens consecutive game record.
      But as sloppy as the bug itself was, Microsoft noted its seriousness and issued a patch six months before the exploit developed. Administrators who were "too busy" to apply a patch are the ones who really laid the egg here.
    3. Another buffer overflow, this one in the Windows Workstation Service, was revealed and patched early November. As yet, no exploit of significance has emerged, but this vulnerability looks too fat and juicy for the mal-coding community to pass up.
  • Thanks to worms like Sobig.F, there are now large numbers of systems on the Internet operating as "open proxies," meaning that they are available for spammers to use for sending mail, unbeknownst to their owners. According to MessageLabs, more than 50 percent of all Internet mail is now spam and more than two-thirds of all spam is now sent through such open proxies. So solving the spam problem will probably mean also solving the worm problem. Since the worm problem is largely attributable to uneducated users engaging in dangerous practices, the outlook is bleak.
  • Microsofts buggy MS03-048 Cumulative Security Update for Internet Explorer in early November made the scrollbar in Internet Explorer unbearably dysfunctional. They still havent fixed the so-called fix.
  • For some, 2003 was the year that Phishers got hooked on worms. Worms were bad enough in the past year and phishing was serious enough on its own, but now the scammers are using worms to propagate their attacks. Just what we needed.
  • In what was for the most part a scam itself, the Word-of-Mouth.Org site combined a veiled threat of extortion with viral marketing. However, the site appears to be out of business now; perhaps there should be a corresponding entry for its demise in my list of good things.
  • Hats back on for the average user who continued to launch attachments that accompanied e-mail messages from strangers. These messages had contents that any child would have considered suspicious. As I mentioned with respect to the phishing worm problem above, some of the most important attacks in 2003 required that the user launch an attachment, something that everyone should by now know not to do. In some cases, users had to open up a ZIP file, extract the contents and launch them, and still plenty of people did it. Perhaps I should have more patience with the common user, but I just cant.
  • Although based in good intentions, Microsoft sent a mailing out about a security patch that violated many of they companys own security rules. Officials later apologized and we havent heard of any similar incidents since.
  • Microsoft proved in the past that companies can do Digital Rights Management for software and get it right. In 2003, however, Intuit and Symantec proved that they could do it wrong. TurboTax users had frequent problems with the DRM Intuit instituted and the company eventually apologized to users and ended the activation scheme. Problems with Symantecs DRM in their 2004 line of products also drew criticism from many sources. Perhaps Im a sucker, my long-term optimism is growing for many of these problems. In the future, perhaps not quite 2004, we can expect a lot more good news. On the other hand, spam is one exception: expect more bad news there next year.

    Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

    More from Larry Seltzer

    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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