An applet a day

...might soon be the root of all your computer troubles. Get ready as a new breed of virus comes of age

Published: Sunday 31 May 1998

-- so you thought Bill Gates' brainchild -- the Windows 98 package -- is going to make things easier for you and your computer? Well, brace yourself because there have been some recent reports that are bound to make you and millions of other the computer users pretty unhappy.

Come June, and the whole world will see Microsoft's marketing blitz to drive its latest sequel to the Windows operating system into every office and home computer all over the planet. And notwithstanding all the amazing things that Gates' software promises, millions of computer users across the globe will not be able to appreciate one aspect of the new Windows incarnation -- the ability to pick up a computer virus simply by reading e-mail.

Till now, viruses had great problems sneaking into your computer this way. Though people complained how attachments to their mail messages frequently contain malicious programs, these could be destroyed without much bloodshed or difficulty by simple antivirus programs set to spring into action whenever attached documents are opened or read ( New Scientist , Vol 158, No 2138).

However, Padgett Peterson, an Orlando-based antivirus expert, says Microsoft's moves to combine its Windows operating system with its Internet browser program are weakening this line of defence.

These new changes, taking a huge leap forward with the Windows 98 package, give small programs written in Java language, called applets, access to the fragile innards of a personal computer ( pc ). Web pages use these applets extensively to perform several tasks, including animating graphics.

Peterson has discovered that anyone can send e-mail messages that save these applets straight onto the hard drive -- the memory -- of a pc at the receiving end. These applets are then snapped into action whenever the user turns on his, or her, computer.

According to Peterson, anyone using the new Windows 98 package with Microsoft's popular Outlook software -- an e-mail, calendar and data management program all rolled into one -- is leaving their hard discs wide open and vulnerable to a possible applet attack.

Bill Gates' company estimates that worldwide, a staggering 140 million people currently use the Windows 95 package and the company expects most of them to upgrade their systems to the new Windows 98 package. Meanwhile, Microsoft has already sold over 20 million licenses for its Outlook software.

The problem, as experts have pointed out, essentially centres on a Windows 98 file called scrrun.dll , which lets the operating system to run Java applets found on Web pages, hidden in e-mails, or simply wherever these are, or may be found. Microsoft could eliminate this weakness from its guaranteed-bestseller simply by removing the guilty file from Windows 98, but this would mean that the package's much-flaunted ability to access any Website through a click of the mouse on the desktop icons would not work as advertised.

Nick Ellenden, a consultant at London-based security specialist Zergo, is worried sick by what Peterson says. Although malicious or "bad" Java applets are not yet in circulation on the Internet, virus programmers would definitely not hesitate to exploit this new opportunity to raise hell, he fears.

A Microsoft spokesperson says that Windows 98 will trigger a security warning whenever a potentially harmful applet enters the pc 's hard drive. Ellenden, however, says that extensive use of applets implies that these warnings would turn up so frequently that many users will either ignore them or might even be careless enough to deactivate the entire warning mechanism.

However, the Microsoft spokesperson says that users should take these warnings seriously, unless, of course, they want their hard drives to be wiped out. "There is a potential problem for anyone removing the security settings," he points out.

David Chess, another antivirus expert at the us -based computer giant International Business Machines' ( ibm ) Watson Research Center in Hawthorne, New York, predicts that security problems caused by these Java applets will get worse. "This is one of the harder problems that the computer security world is dealing with right now," he says.

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