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Microsoft’s Zero Day Event
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Microsoft’s Zero Day Event

A Zero Day event in computer speak means in short “you have no time to react”. Security types simply refer to it as “0day”. On November 21st the Information Technology (IT) security world learned of yet another 0day event. As with most such events it involves Microsoft, and like many such recent vulnerabilities the problem is with Internet Explorer (IE 5.5 and 6 are vulnerable, even if service packed and patched). But what makes this 0day different from the most of them is that this one is so easy that a child can exploit it. Literally our children can, and surely will, take advantage of this problem and wreak total havoc on our computer systems.

The original problem was discovered back in June by Benjamin Tobias Franz (a German security expert). Mr. Franz did the right thing and reported the bug to security experts around the world, and thus to the attention of Microsoft. Yet in the following 5 ½ months no patches or warnings were issued by Microsoft. On November 21st a British security group released “Proof of Concept” code for the world to see. What this means is that our children now have sample code (pretty much step by step instructions) that they can use to “own” your computer (in other words, they can do what they want to it. Including completely destroying it should they wish too).

The sample code is non-destructive. In its released form it simply pops up your Windows calculator. No big deal. But by simply replacing the code where it says “calc.exe” with something more destructive they can cause your computer a world of pain. The possibilities are endless. They can turn your computer in to “spam bot” where its used to transmit millions of pieces of spam (before your service provider shuts you down). They could format your hard drive, thus wiping out all your data. They could use it to stage further attacks on government owned computer systems. Or they can load it up with kiddie porn and tell your modem to dial 911 over and over until the police show up. These are not new ideas, all of them have been done before.

With the current 0day vulnerability all they need is a delivery mechanism. This is not a worm or a virus, the exploit has no way to travel to you like a network worm would. It needs a way to get you to come to it. But this does not mean you can relax, far from it. All they need to use is their imaginations, and an email program. For this vulnerability to work all they need is for you to click a link. So they use what security experts call “social engineering”, in other words they trick you. “Phishing” scams do it all the time. Those are those emails that look like they come from your bank, Paypal, eBay, etc. but are actually coming from bad guys looking for your account information. But a lot of people have gotten wise to those scams. Not because they’ve become technically proficient, but because they know the bad guys are looking for money. Therefore J.Q. Public has learned not to trust any email from someplace that controls their money. But what if you received an email from save-the-children@feedkids.com and it contained pictures of hungry kids. The message says that Big Greedy Corporation has promised to send them one dollar for every person that clicks on the picture of the hungry child featured so prominently in the email. Would you click the picture? Many people would. Probably most people would. Well if you do and the link was to one of these rouge websites than your computer is now “owned” by some14 year old kid. Or worse by a group of hackers that install a “keylogger” on your computer to capture your banking information. All you did was click on a picture. You didn’t have to click “OK” after that, you didn’t have to click “Yes” to install anything. The hackers took care of all of that for you.

So what can you do? To start with until Microsoft releases fix for this problem don’t trust any email unless you were expecting it (don’t click the links). You can also turn off “Active Scripting” in your Internet Explorer browser (Tools, Internet Options, Security, Custom Level, set “Active Scripting” to Disable). However, this may cause some websites to not load properly. Or you can switch to another browser, such as Firefox (www.mozilla.org/firefox), which would not be vulnerable to this exploit (in fact Firefox is safer than IE in many ways). Be sure to let Microsoft know how you feel about them taking their sweet time releasing a fix and be nice to that 14 year old geek down the street. They may very well “own” your computer.

John Herron, CISSP
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