Analysis On March 26 1999, the Melissa virus crippled tens of thousands of messaging servers worldwide in a few hours and sent a security wake up call to corporates and AV firms. Three years on, John Leyden wonders if anything has changed following the outbreak.
Today marks the third anniversary of the outbreak of Melissa, the first prominent example of the mass-mailing virus phenomenon, which continues to bedevil Internet users.
According to papers filed at the trial of the virus's author, computer programmer David L. Smith, Melissa caused damage exceeding $80 million to businesses worldwide after its release on March 26 1999.
Companies such as Microsoft, Intel, Lockheed Martin, and Lucent Technologies were forced to shut down their email gateways because of the large amount of email the virus was generating. It also caused the closure of e-mail systems of government agencies in both the US and UK.
Smith, who is in his 30s, released the Melissa virus by deliberately posting an infected document to an alt.sex.usenet newsgroup from a stolen AOL account. The virus, believed to be named after a stripper Smith knew in Florida, forwards itself to the first 50 addresses in all of your accessible Outlook address books.
Despite pleading guilty of spreading the virus in December 1999, Smith, of Aberdeen Township in New Jersey, is still awaiting sentence.
Despite numerous incidents of similar viruses since (such as Love Bug, SirCam and the Anna Kournikova worm) antivirus experts believe the tide may be turning against virus writers as users get more clued up.
Jack Clark, product marketing manager of the McAfee division of Network Associates, said IT managers are more experienced at how to deal with virus outbreaks.
Users - many of whom have fallen victim to a virus infection at least once - are now generally more cautious about opening email, Clark reckons. In response, virus writers are getting clever in the social engineering tricks they employ.
A virus of the magnitude of Melissa has not been seen for over six months, but that's no reason to become complacent.
A substantial minority of PC users out there who continue to fall victim to viruses which results in the rest of us receiving, for example, a steady stream of bandwidth stealing copies of the SirCam worm almost a year after it first appeared.
Clark reckons the answer to this lies in more user education and better heuristic (automatic detection) and management tools in AV products, so that suspicious emails are blocked at email gateways.
AV vendors have greatly improved their products in these ways over the last three years, he reckons.
We think that the continuing prevalence of email-borne viruses shows they have a long way to go. Greater availability of virus blocking services through ISPs can certainly help, though something even more radical might be needed.
Razor blades are failing to cut it
For a contrarian view we turn to an interesting opinion piece by former AV salesman Robert Vibert on the Virus Myths Web site, run by AV gadfly Rob Rosenburger.
Vibert writes that when he first got into the business of selling antivirus software ten years ago there were various options that he could sell clients, ranging from scanners to behaviour blockers to integrity checkers.
Behaviour blockers and integrity checkers would prevent viruses doing any harm, he argues, but customers had been trained to expect to find each specific virus using a scanner. This spawned an industry geared to selling razor blades scanner updates to deal with the malicious code menace.
Unless we all move to some sort of blended technology, which does not require constant updates on every PC, there's no hope of staying ahead of virus writers, Vibert concludes.
The benefits of blended technology appear, at least at first sight, to outweigh the drawbacks.
Short of a mass defection to Linux (which is far less susceptible to virus infection), greater use of behaviour blockers and integrity checkers looks promising.
Assuming AV vendors are nor frightened of spoiling sales of
razor blades scanner updates, that is. ®
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2001: vintage year for virus infections
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Hybrid viruses set to become bigger threat
Virus toolkits are s'kiddie menace
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