- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2003

It’s probably easier to get a room in Las Vegas this week than it was at this time in 2000: the once-fabled COMDEX computer show is expected to attract only 50,000 visitors, a quarter of the total three years ago.

But that doesn’t mean the show will be without news. In his Nov. 16 keynote speech, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates announced new moves to attack unsolicited commercial e-mail, or spam.

There may be no more important time than now for a war against spam. Some of these “junk” messages are designed to “spoof” authorized e-mail from companies you do business with normally. Once they get your credit-card data, including passwords, these “phish” artists can ruin your good name.

But if the bad e-mail can’t get to you, you are far less likely to become a victim. That’s where Mr. Gates and his announcement come in.

Already, Microsoft’s newest Outlook e-mail client for Windows uses something called “SmartScreen” to help identify and deflect spam. Microsoft will beef up SmartScreen, add similar technology to its Web-based Hotmail system, and include an “Intelligent Message Filter” for its Exchange program, which is run on computer networks by many companies. Beefing up Exchange, it’s reasoned, will help stop even more spam.

Microsoft may be coming a little late to this party, but better late than never.

The challenge, however, will be to make the new defenses impregnable. Microsoft’s Internet and operating-system products have had trouble with defenses in recent years; back-door channels and other “holes” have been discovered and exploited by nefarious types. A patch generally follows from Microsoft, but sometimes only after a bit of trouble for users.

Microsoft must secure the perimeter of these new additions from the start. Any hole that’s discovered will lead to problems for Microsoft and shake some users’ confidence.

That’s a bit tough for the software titan: Being such a big target, there’s plenty of incentive for hackers and other criminals to take aim. So many enemies, so little time for Microsoft. But with more than two decades of PC business experience, there’s an incentive to get it right.

Microsoft has a great responsibility in being vigilant about these matters. Other alternatives, such as Linux, are gaining ground and may gain more if Microsoft stumbles.

Beware the paypal virus: BitDefender Lab, a Bucharest, Romania-based producer of data-security solutions, warns against a new variant of the Internet worm Mimail, called “Mimail.I,” a virus that attempts to gain access to Paypal members’ credit-card information. PayPal is an online service that allows Internet-based payments for auction purchases, books and other transactions.

The virus comes as a fake e-mail message from PayPal, announcing the expiring of a user’s account. I’ve had two e-mails from readers who have been approached this way.

“It’s a very ‘persuasive’ worm,” said Patrick Vicol, a virus researcher at BitDefender. “Its general aspect is very professional, so it could foul many unprotected users. Technically speaking, it has a simple, yet very efficient way of tricking people into giving away their credit-card information,” Mr. Vicol said.

More information on BitDefender’s software and the Mimail.I worm can be found at www.bitdefender.com.

E-mail MarkKel@aol.com, or visit www.kellner.us.

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