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Why hackers target Windows

Stand-alone desktop OS's face security threats in a networked world

The renowned user-friendliness -and popularity - of Windows software will continue to make the platform a prime target for hackers, warn users and analysts in the aftermath of the ILOVE YOU virus and its variants.

In addition, they say, Windows' evolution from a stand-alone desktop environment gives it features that can be exploited relatively easily by hackers in a networked world.

In fact, the speed and ferocity with which the so-called Love Bug propagated itself across millions of Windows computers worldwide - while leaving users of Linux, Macintosh, and UNIX operating systems untouched - underscores that fact.

"Creating viruses to attack Microsoft Windows is not rocket science," says Dave Stringer-Calvert, a senior project manager at Stanford Research Institute International in the US.

"There is no doubt that we will see another virus targeted at Windows users very shortly, and it could be far more damaging than the ILOVE YOU [virus]."

Making Windows applications a particularly attractive target is their huge installed base and the relative ease with which crackers can turn several of Windows' useful features into weapons against users.

On the plus side, Microsoft provides some very nice tools for integrating applications, such as Outlook, Internet Explorer, and Exchange.

The downside is that viruses are able to spread that much more quickly precisely because of such integration.

Not for Networking?

Another crucial fact is that platforms such as Windows 95 and Windows 98 grew out of a stand-alone desktop system environment that wasn't really designed for internet-worked use, analysts and users say.

Several of the key usability features, such as the ability for users to install software or configure a system, pose a security risk in a networked environment because what one user does can affect all the others, says Laura DiDio, an analyst at Giga Information Group.

"It brings us to the basic question of usability versus security," DiDio says.

Such reasons make Windows users more vulnerable to virus attacks than users of Linux, Macintosh, or UNIX operating systems, where security is more of an architectural consideration.

Essential to minimising exposure to such attacks is keeping virus protection software constantly updated, says Hugh Hale, IT manager at Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Tennessee, USA.

The company had to shut down all external e-mail for two days while the virus was weeded out of its systems.

"About the only thing you can do is pick the best anti-virus vendor out there and do the best to stop attachments of any kind being sent from inside or outside your systems," Hale says.

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