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Learning from the Love Bug

Where do we go from here?

Just when you think you can take a breather from virus paranoia, something else gets the adrenaline flowing. Late last Friday we heard reports of the Killer Resume virus, a new variant of the infamous Melissa virus that started the era of widespread infections back in March of 1999. The inevitable media circus ensued along with all its attendant scare mongering.

As of early Tuesday, Killer Resume, which erases your PC's hard drive when you open a .doc attachment to a Microsoft Outlook e-mail message, seems to have caused little damage. The same goes for NewLove, a short-lived successor to the Love Bug.

But does the relative failure of these two nasty new viruses mean we have learned our lesson?

Yes and no, say virus experts. The Love Bug did help boost anti-virus preparedness, especially within businesses, but plenty of vulnerabilities remain.

Unlucky in Love Bug

The Love Bug might have been better named the Las Vegas Virus, experts say, because most of its "success" was mainly luck. It was far from sophisticated, and it could have easily been written by virtually anyone with hacker tendencies.

Part of the Love Bug's explosive spread was due to timing. Released in the Far East in the middle of the night, it had already spread into UK-based mail servers by morning, allowing early users to start spreading it before system administrators were aware of the problem.

The Bug stops here

But if you're not hooked up to a business network with its own mail server, chances are that you never saw the Love Bug. ISPs were able to react quickly to filter out the Love Bug because they're 24-hour businesses that are open to the world and concerned about security.

In the business world, though, the timing of the Love Bug's release meant the damage had already been done by the time information technology personnel were on the job. Even though filters were quickly added to stop the Love Bug at corporate Internet firewalls, the "soft insides" of many corporate networks allowed the virus to easily spread.

Future love machines

Sophisticated antivirus products for corporate mail servers are big business, and suppliers were fast to create patches for the Love Bug and its successors. But what about future viruses?

The game of cat and mouse between antivirus software and the dark underground of virus developers will continue, but that game keeps changing. Notably in 1999, macro viruses made up between 80 and 90 percent of all virus attacks. But so far this year, macro-based attacks are down to 60 percent, leaving room for script-based attacks such as the Love Bug to take over.

Antivirus software makers, of course, are hard at work. The future of successful antivirus software lies in more sophisticated analyses that detect virus-like behaviors before details are known, says Vincent Weafer, director of Symantec's Antivirus Research Center.

Future products will also incorporate "generic behavior blockers," Weafer adds. For example, an anti-virus program might pop up a warning if your email program starts sending out dozens of identical messages shortly after you open an email attachment.

The Love Bug was a major media star. Even Britain’s terrestrial television stations dropped their usual cat-stuck-up-a-tree stories to focus on hair-raising stories of dubious accuracy by self-proclaimed pundits.

Asked how damaging the Love Bug was, industry experts invariably cite billions of pounds in damage. But no one has come up with any hard numbers, and more than likely no one ever will. Businesses, the group on which the Love Bug took its biggest toll, have been especially tight-lipped.

Perhaps most striking to virus experts is how many people were tricked by the Love Bug. It's "mind-boggling" that so many people blithely double-clicked email attachments from individuals they didn't know, says Finn of Unisys.

In business environments, the cause may be a simple "lack of education," he says. He adds that corporate managers need to have formal training programs that raise awareness by couching security in terms that are both "personal and practical."

The problem is that the public’s memory is extremely short when it comes to virus attacks. Today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping. After all we still use warning signs on motorways warning us to reduce speed when lethal patches of fog cut visibility to almost zero.


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