New Worms Catch Big Business With Pants Down

Opinion: Nobody who takes security seriously could get hit through Windows 2000 PnP vulnerability, yet lots of large corporations were hit. You do the math.

Thanks, Wolf.

Theres nothing to raise awareness of a computer threat quite like a news flash on CNN. Heres the follow-up story: CNN Network Admins Betray Incompetence At Security.

Deadlines! If only my column were due on Wednesday rather than Tuesday I might have written a different one than the yesterdays, where I dismiss Microsofts MS05-039 vulnerability as not having the stuff of a real worm outbreak. I still think theres more smoke than fire here, but clearly some companies were massively hit.

Everything I said in my column about mitigating factors on this vulnerability holds: the stupidest firewall in the world would block this worm from spreading and only Windows 2000 systems are vulnerable (although its possible that new worms could be developed that would have limited success against Windows XP SP1 systems).

So it makes sense that its Fortune 500 corporations that are being attacked, since they are the heartland for Windows 2000 usage. Of course, all these companies have firewalls at their perimeters, so the attack had to come from the inside. Its a cliche in the security business by now, but someone took their unpatched, unfirewalled Windows 2000 system out into the real world and got it infected with this worm. Then they took it back to the office, plugged it in and logged on, and soon everyone else on the network segment was hit hard.

I dont *know* it happened this way, and neither do the security companies, but it seems like a reasonable assumption. It leads to the inevitable conclusion that there are a lot of large companies out there not protecting their networks against threats we have known about for a very long time. Theres no doubt that every single company that has been hit in this way was also hit by Sasser and Blaster and Slammer, and what did they learn from it? Not a whole lot. In the end they probably got around to applying all the patches and told themselves that they had addressed the problem.

So its CNN Special Report stuff, but how serious is this outbreak? McAfee is rating the worms a "High" threat, meaning its really serious. Trend and Symantec wont go that far. Joe Hartmann at Trend told me (about 10PM eastern) that it wasnt a major outbreak, but it could get worse. I agree with Joe, but of course, theres a pretty serious limit on how far these worms can spread, being limited to Windows 2000 and thwartable by any competent administrator with a non-trivial budget.

Now before I go, I will echo what all of the antivirus companies and Microsoft are saying, which is that you should apply the MS05-039 patch with all due haste. If you dont have a patch management strategy in place for quick deployment in emergent cases such as this, get one, and then go around patching them as quickly as you can. Or, if youre one of the intelligent admins that has put protections in place, such as requiring client security and/or network access control, you can take your time applying the patch.

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

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