The Virus That Ate MCI

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Was the discovery of a huge Windows NT virus that wreaked havoc in the computer networks at MCI WorldCom over the weekend the first manifestation of a new era of cyber-paranoia? This at least was no urban legend of virus-bearing e-mail that will trash your hard drive if you read it: As ZDnet reports, at least 10 sites and thousands of servers and workstations at MCI were crippled by a bug that disables executable files and locks users out of .DOC and .XLF files. And although the origin of the virus remains unknown, the fact that it was timed to propagate during the hours when MCI's tech support is least staffed strongly suggests a deliberate attack. One official grimly characterized the virus as the first legitimate incident of cyber-terrorism he had ever seen -- not a surprising spin when it's your corporate network that's writhing on the floor.

But is this really new? Surveys in recent years have shown that corporate computer attacks are commonplace, and that the victims typically bury them rather than acknowledge security breaches. As much as anything else, the incident highlights the ongoing problems with Windows NT security, and the advantages of using more secure operating systems -- Linux, for one. One might be tempted to use Bill Gates's deposition rhetoric about Java against him: That the problem with the virus and Windows NT is evidence of sloppy programming on the part of Microsoft.