Collaring Cyberthugs

The mighty Microsoft Corporation hasn't had the best of success in foolproofing its software from hackers who regularly create computer viruses and worms.

That may be why it's taken a less than technical tack lately using an old-fashioned tool: the bounty. That method is proving more successful.

A company offer of a $250,000 reward recently led to the capture of a German teenager responsible for the so-called "Sasser" worm, which has invaded computers around the world. In fact, the arrest came within seven days of the launch of the virus, and the teenager even confessed. He also admitted to writing all 28 variations of the "NetSky" virus, which hit in February.

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Microsoft started its hacker-busting reward program with a $5 million fund last fall, a recognition that it needs to go beyond its software engineering labs to work with law enforcement, such as Interpol, the FBI, and the Secret Service.

In fact, working with German police in a separate investigation, Microsoft officials also tracked down the authors of another especially virulent virus this week - called "Phatbot" (previously known as "Agobot") which caused millions of dollars of damage to home and business computers - including two major airlines, government offices in Hong Kong, and the post office in Taiwan.

Unfortunately, the Sasser worm's still crawling in cyberspace. It (and its variants) are a form of "malware" that doesn't require a PC user to do anything except be connected to the Internet. (Most previous worms required a user to click on something, such as an e-mail attachment.) Sasser simply scans for an online computer, infects it, and then uses it to look for others to invade. It slows computers down, and can cause them to crash.

Such computer attacks are worse this year than ever. Security experts say the number of major incidents has so far surpassed the 2003 total. All the more reason to strengthen such public-private partnerships.

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