Computer Worm Attack Hits Networks Across U.S.

Alex Chadwick talks with Ira Flatow, host of NPR's Talk of the Nation Science Friday, about a malicious worm attacking computers across the nation, forcing whole networks to reboot themselves over and over and taking over some PCs.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Have you installed the latest security fix for a hole in your Microsoft Windows system? If you have not yet, you should do it--and quickly. A malicious new worm is working its way through the computing world, forcing some folks to dust off the old trusty typewriter, believe it or not. With us is Ira Flatow, host of "Science Friday," regular Thursday contributor to DAY TO DAY.

Ira, have you got your patches yet?

IRA FLATOW reporting:

Well, I have to say I have. I patched up my reserve Windows machines, but since I mostly use a Mac I'm immune, as people who use Linux machines are also. Now this Zotob worm attacks Windows machines mostly in large networks because it travels within the office network. And, as you said, it has attacked large media companies like ABC, The New York Times, forcing them to haul out those trusty old IBM Selectrics. You remember those, Alex, with their little round ball on top?

CHADWICK: Yeah, and they go (makes whirring sound). ...(Unintelligible).

FLATOW: I'm sure you have one sitting right there in reserve.

CHADWICK: So how is this worm attacking?

FLATOW: Well, you know, it's interesting. It takes advantage of a security flaw in the Windows system--in particular, the Windows 2000 operating system. Microsoft provided a security patch for it last week, but since then those hackers have created variants of the worm, sort of mutating it, so it could days, if not weeks, for the effects of this worm to die out, if, in fact, it does go away completely.

CHADWICK: And what does the worm do?

FLATOW: Well, one thing that it does--which is quite annoying if you have it--is it makes your computer re-boot on and off endlessly until you pull the plug out. It may also tie up network connections between the computers so badly that the system becomes basically useless. And the interesting thing about this is that you don't know if the worm has gotten into your system. It doesn't come in on e-mail. It doesn't come in on software that you download. As long as you're computer is hooked to a network, it will silently find its way in. The vir--the worm sort of sniffs its way through the ports until it finds its way to your computer. Most network administrators know how to firewall it out. It's the person who brings a laptop, perhaps, into the office with Windows 2000 running on it and then suddenly connects it in and the laptop is infected and `Uh-oh!' It's now into your network.

But there is some good news here, if there can be good news about something like this. Unlike other worms or viruses, it does not wipe out your data. Your files can remain intact and you can recover them later after you're done pulling out all of your hair.

CHADWICK: You mentioned that this worm has mutated, in a sort of a biological analogy. You know how we now use some sort of natural pest predators to attack other pest predators. Why don't we find worms that will attack other worms?--that is, programs that will ferret out these computer attacks and hackers and just attack that kind of software?

FLATOW: Well, I guess you could be spending all of your time trying to play good spy, bad spy, trying to out-spy the spy folks, but you'd always be one step behind because these hackers are very good. The best thing that you can do is to try to look at the worm and see where it comes sniffing in and to try to create a patch for it to basically shut the door on the ports on where it might be sneaking in, and that's basically what they're trying to do with these patches.

What is interesting, though, is if you go to the Microsoft Web site to download the patch, make sure you are using a Microsoft Web browser because the Web site denies entry to Firefox and other not-made-by-Redmond folks. And it's that kind of attitude, I think, that gives you some idea of why Microsoft is the favorite target of hackers.

CHADWICK: Ira Flatow, host of "Science Friday," regular Thursday contributor to DAY TO DAY. Ira, thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY returns in just a moment. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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