Cyber terrorism? How about cyber hucksterism! By Charles Cooper, ZDNN December 23, 1998 1:24 PM PT P.T. Barnum, meet Network Associates. During the course of the last decade and a half, I've watched a lot of self-serving hucksters grace the landscape of the computer industry. In my personal pantheon of favorites, nobody holds a candle to the immortal Jack Tramiel. Despite delivering little more than gassy promises, the former head honcho at Atari was a master at commanding rapt media attention. But he knew the drill, easily playing the press for the suckers they often are. There's since been a lot of tough competition, but after watching the way they whipped folks into a lather Monday afternoon, the perspicacious PR handlers at Network Associates rate a very honorable mention. The company's spin-meisters set the press's hearts aflutter during a hastily called press conference where they hyperventilated about a nasty virus that primarily strikes at Windows NT-based servers and workstations. The virus, which was designed to steal the privileges of the system administrators, is serious stuff. But when Network Associates executives breathlessly labeled this an act of cyber terrorism, I expected to next hear a status report on the latest sighting of Osama bin Laden and Co. It turns out that the supposed victim, MCI WorldCom, didn't suffer a second of downtime or loss of data. Network Associates subsequently climbed down its over-the-top rhetoric and dropped the cyber terrorism charge. By that point, however, the company got what it wanted: Exposure. Show-stoppers, anyone? Just how much of a show-stopper is the so-called Remote Explorer? All viruses are of course bad news -- except for the anti-virus companies that sell bug-killing software to corporations understandably worried silly about nitwit geeks who get off by gumming up company networks. Far be it for me to suggest anything untoward, but this microphone grab had all the trappings of a shameless public relations stunt orchestrated by Network Associates to trumpet its technical savvy (and perhaps remind investors that it's a hot commodity?) Most of the press happily went along for the ride. I expected more, but this being the holiday season, my colleagues were in a more charitable frame of mind than I. The security experts I spoke with raised their eyebrows at Network Associates' more extravagant claims. Yes, they allowed, this is a virulent virus and can spread easily, given certain conditions. But come on, it's certainly not the first network-based virus to spread itself and take advantage of a security hole. And by comparison, the Morris Internet worm wreaked far more havoc. Anti-virus and security firms have long discussed the threat of a virus that uses security holes to get into a system and open up privileges for the programmer to invade the system. Had the rogue programmer responsible for the attack been a more careful programmer, who knows what damage might have been inflicted. By any stretch, though, the overheated rhetoric was over the top. A botched case of sabotage? Perhaps. But cyber terrorism? Not on your life.
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