Putting the dancing pigs in their cyber-pen
BOSTON — 'Given a choice between dancing pigs and security, users will pick dancing pigs every time.' - Ed Felten, Princeton University
THEY ARE CALLED TROJAN HORSES. The name says it all. An innocent e-mail lands in your mail box that seems to come from your best friend, or that joke e-mail list that you joined, and promises to show you "dancing pigs" if you click on the executable attachment included with the message. ("Executable" means it fires up once you click on it.)
And while you do get dancing pigs, you also get something else - a bit of malicious computer code that scrambles your hard drive, or sends all of your personal e-mail to everyone else in the office, or worse, sends all your business's corporate memos to someone only too happy to sell them to your competition.
And you never even knew it happened. You were too busy watching dancing pigs.
Now, let's take our "dancing pig" Trojan horse and link it to the Y2K problem, and you have an idea of why many people who make their living creating security programs for the Internet are concerned that the real danger from the year 2000 won't be computer bugs. In a white paper called "Y2K Tunnel Vision: Why Hackers May Be the Real Threat," Ron Moritz, the chief technology officer for Finjan Software, argues that our computer networks "are at risk not from Y2K bugs but rather from distracted IT [information technology] managers who fail to see the real danger looming ahead.
"While IT folks are off fighting Y2K fires, repairing code and preparing to respond to programs that fail on Jan. 1, 2000, those with ill-will are preparing to take advantage of the lax attention to security details," he writes.
But Trojan horses aren't the only danger. In an article last month in InternetWeek Online, "Enterprises Vulnerable to Y2K Hacks," writer Rutrell Yasin quotes security experts who say they have found "backdoors" written into software that was sent by US companies for Y2K repairs to a third party, often overseas. (Backdoors are holes placed in a computer's security network that allows hackers or cyber-criminals to get into a network unnoticed.)
(According to Mr. Moritz, Computer Economics Inc. reported that in the first six months of 1999, American businesses experienced $7.6 billion in losses as a result of computers disabled from malicious code travelling through the public Internet.)
So what can you do to prevent Y2K from becoming a security problem?
First, never open an executable attachment that comes from anyone, if you didn't ask for it directly. Even your own systems administrator's e-mail address can be faked. So always double-check.
Second, make sure the Y2K fixes done for your company's computer network don't solve one problem, but create another. Y2K fixes should be checked for security holes, especially if they have been done by a third party.
Third, have your information technology department investigate software that helps create a "sandbox" or "demilitarized zone" that serves to spot Trojan horses, viruses, worms, etc. before they find their way into e-mail in-boxes.
And the next time someone tells you to check out the dancing pig, hit that delete button as fast as you can.
*Tom Regan is associate editor of The Christian Science Monitor's Electronic Edition. Send e-mail to: Tom@csmonitor.com
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society