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Computer worms make viruses look tame
Hackers' new software can wreck files, invade computer users' privacy, security; High-speed Internet users most vulnerable
Vito Pilieci The Ottawa Citizen
The next generation of hackers will prove more intrusive, costly and dangerous than their diabolical predecessors.
Online vandals have created malicious software that lets them make computer "worms" -- destructive codes that make the nastiest of viruses look tame -- in mass quantities.
Just last week a new worm called Code Red -- believed to have originated in China -- attacked 11,900 Internet servers, defacing all of the Web sites hosted on those servers before posting this text: "Welcome to http://www.worm.com! Hacked by Chinese!"
Worms attack operating systems and rearrange files, causing damage, "and then try to proliferate," says Tom Slodichak, vice-president of security services for Jawz Inc., a computer security consulting firm.
Worms can also allow vandals to monitor computer users' keystrokes, have full access to their PCs, spy on their personal moments by taking control of their computers' digital cameras, and perform any other undesirable computer-related function the vandal may desire.
By monitoring keystrokes, a hacker can gain access to a user's Internet accounts, passwords, credit card numbers and other personal information.
Traditional computer viruses are delivered through a user's e-mail or an infected floppy disk and, once in place, jam e-mail boxes with junk messages, or prevent the computer from reading data on certain disk drives.
After viruses were made popular by outbreaks of the Melissa virus and the Love Bug last year -- the Love Bug alone caused an estimated $8.7 billion U.S. in damage -- just about every home PC owner ran out and bought anti-virus software to prevent these outbreaks from happening again.
Anti-virus software filters out most messages that contain computer viruses. If one happens to make it to your inbox the virus will remain dormant unless a user opens it, invoking that virus on their system.
But anti-virus software has little effect on computer worms.
One of the most dangerous worms on the Web today is called Back Orifice, which has been wreaking havoc on personal computer systems for more than a year now.
Using special software, hackers know when a computer is connected to the Internet. If a person's computer is not properly protected a hacker can tap into his or her Internet connection and upload a worm to their computer's hard drive without the user's knowledge.
"They have a Rolodex of vulnerabilities, and they go around trying to find a machine that is vulnerable," Mr. Slodichak said.
People who are using high-speed Internet services such as DSL or cable technologies are the most vulnerable because their systems are always connected to the Internet.
"It's an open door," said April Goostree, virus research manager with McAfee.com, makers of the McAfee Virus Scan software. "To anyone who can find that door, you have allowed them to come in."
Peter Hickey, assistant director of communications services at the University of Ottawa, said many of these vandals will scan thousands of systems at once while trying to find one they can attack.
"They get the machine to do the work for them, they tell the computer to go out and check 100,000 computers in the next 10 minutes," he said. "Here at the university several times a day somebody attempts to scan through our entire network looking for things that are open."
People who are using popular Internet services such as Napster and ICQ, which promote the sharing of files among an online community, are the easiest targets.
Mr. Slodichak said not only are these people always logged on to the Internet with their high-speed connections, but they have already opened their systems to a community of potential vandals.
"If you lie down with dogs you are going to get up with fleas," he said. "They have to protect themselves with something like a personal firewall that denies access to that kind of reading or writing activity on their home machine."
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), July 20, 2001
It is not a good idea to have any kind of camera or microphone connected to a computer that cannot be PHYSICALLY disconnected or unplugged easily, and is in fact so disconnected when not in actual use.
A computer monitor or other essential component (that cannot be easily disconnected physically) with an integrated microphone and/or camera should never be considered.
Those now violating this guideline should read Orwell's book, titled "Nineteen Eighty Four", if not now sufficiently motivated to remediate the situation.
It is easy to predict that essential computer components with an integrated camera and/or microphone will soon be offered as seemingly irresistably low prices. These will be subsidized by those moneyed powers that seek to eliminate any remaining shred of personal privacy.
-- Robert Riggs (firstname.lastname@example.org), July 21, 2001.