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December 2003

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Making E-commerce Secure Against Attack

by Glen Emerson Morris

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Over the past year, computer viruses transmitted through the Internet in e-mails have become significantly more sophisticated. The latest viruses can do more damage, and they are harder to protect against.

So far, Microsoft products have been hit hardest by the viruses, and they are likely to be in the future due to a basic design flaw of Microsoft products. Though it seemed like a good idea at the time, Microsoft made it particularly easy for software applications to access and use the Microsoft operating system. This feature allowed applications to interact and do more for users, but it also made the Microsoft operating system extremely vulnerable to attack from computer viruses that would use the operating system for destructive purposes.

Microsoft has announced it will address the security issues, but there is some doubt Microsoft will be able to deliver given the nature of the problem. Even Microsoft’s approach to the security issue is questionable. Part of Microsoft’s plan is to launch new virus protection software products, but will businesses really pay Microsoft additional fees for software to protect Microsoft users from security flaws that are ultimately Microsoft’s fault in the first place? Some doubt it.

Some of Microsoft’s security problems may prove extremely difficult to deal with. One of the Catch-22 problems of dealing with Internet viruses is that posting a fix on the Internet usually requires explaining the flaw in enough detail that the explanation can be used as a blueprint by a hacker to make a copycat virus. Many IT departments don’t have the resources to run Microsoft updates the day they are released. Sometimes it can be up to a week before updates are run. Hackers know this and will check Microsoft daily for security updates, find one they like, quickly write a virus to take advantage of the vulnerability and release it on the Internet.

It’s worth asking why a communications system designed to withstand a nuclear attack could be used for destructive ends by a small set of isolated computer geeks working with virtually no budget. The answer is simply that the Internet was designed to protect against attacks from outside, not from within. When the Internet was initially set up in the 1950’s, only a limited number of businesses and universities had the computers required to use the Internet, and access to those computers was limited. When the Internet went public, all access control was lost. The combination of no access control on the Internet and little access control of Microsoft operating systems has proved to be an expensive combination for businesses, possibly too expensive.

With virus attacks only likely to increase in the future, it would make sense for American businesses to switch to the more secure Unix or Linux based operating systems. Mac users are already having to learn Linux and surviving. Giving up on the Microsoft operating system might be a good thing for Microsoft, too. Microsoft could do a port of most of its programs to Linux fairly easily. Some features might not be able to be implemented immediately, but probably nothing essential. The Linux operating system would make using Microsoft products more secure, and more stable.

Though once seen as an operating system only used by computer geeks, Linux has come a long way to respectability. IBM is using Linux on all four of its mainframe families, and even governments are adopting Linux. China, Japan and South Korea have announced a plan to pool resources to develop an Asian language version of Linux. Even Viet Nam has a law planned that will require all computers built in Viet Nam to have a Linux open source operating system.

Part of this multi-country development is due to Microsoft itself. Microsoft failed to realize that some countries simply can’t afford Microsoft products at the current pricing levels. When Microsoft pressured China to end illegal use of Microsoft products within China, the Chinese responded by officially moving to Linux.

The net effect of the China, Japan and Korea effort over the next five years will be that a flood of applications will become available for Linux. The three countries combined represent about a third of the Earth’s total population, and that population includes many highly competent computer professions, some trained at American companies. Many of the software products they develop will be marketed in America, and at rock bottom prices.

The long term solution to the computer virus problem will be the development of operating systems that are smart enough to detect and prevent most virus attacks, and heal themselves from attacks they can’t prevent. This will take years, but it will be worth it. In the mean time, virus attacks will continue, and they will become more expensive. The only effective solution available now for Microsoft users is to move to a more secure operating system.

It’s only a matter of time before a well-funded attack on American e-commerce takes place. We need to be ready for it.

Note: At this point the only relatively safe system to handle e-mail is a Macintosh running 9.x or earlier. Most of the current viruses simply don’t affect the earlier Macs.

Glen Emerson Morris has worked as a technology consultant for Network Associates, Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius, and is the developer of the Advertising & Marketing Review Data CD.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

' keywords: Internet advertising, Internet marketing, business, advertising, Internet, marketing. For more advertising and marketing help, news, resources and information visit our Home Page.

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