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Tainted Love

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Many of you are probably beginning to get accustomed to the recent spate of emailborne macroviruses that have swept the Internet. Examples include Melissa and, more recently, the I Love You (Love Bug) virus, an allegedly accidental academic Frankenstein that spread across the Internet like wildfire. I suspect that more than one MC reader responsible for cleaning up the Love Bug’s mess has yearned for the good old days, when sending electronic messages to coworkers meant using the Send Break Message (SNDBRKMSG) command on System/38. The only security risk you ran was sending some really embarrassing text message to everyone in your enterprise, complete with a beep and blank screen, interrupting their work, and possibly your career. That prehistoric era was only 12 years ago. Now we can inadvertently send a very two-faced display of digital affection that can take down thousands of people’s PCs without so much as a kiss beforehand. How did things degrade so, especially in shops using AS/400s, which have superior hardware/software security?

There are many important lessons to be learned from emailborne viruses, with serious decision-support implications. The fact that this particular strain of virus spread as widely as it did reflects that we have a great deal of work to do to educate our users and improve infrastructure security. Love Bug was a very simple cloned script, reverse engineered from its predecessor, Melissa. Love Bug was easily preventable. The virus’s simple script was dissected in “The Code That Rocked the e-World” (www.midrangecomputing.com/coffeebreak/bi.cfm?bi=000510.cfm). Love Bug’s success also suggests that our industry has become too focused on quickly implementing the latest and greatest new technologies in accelerated Internet time at the expense of our other responsibilities (including infrastructure security.)

The most important lesson to learn from the emailborne viruses is about being a good “neighbor” in the interconnected world of Internet commerce, lest the courts and Congress force that responsibility upon us. As e-business interruptions increase, some companies will resort to the legal system to recover their economic losses. Some attorneys are suggesting that a civil “negligence” lawsuit could be brought against companies whose infrastructure is used in a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) or Melissa virus attack. Given that the courts and Congress have largely immunized the ISP industry from liability for any content that flows across their infrastructure, the arguably negligent company or university that permits a harmful virus or DDoS zombie to be created or operated from its infrastructure could end up liable to potentially millions of other Internet e-businesses.


Much like a product liability lawsuit, the aggrieved party would go back in the “chain of distribution” to sue everyone who played a role. One of those parties could be your company if viruses or zombies were to act (or destroy) from your infrastructure. Are you sure you’re safe from this potential liability?

Email standards and practices are also a growing legal and technology issue. Courts have imposed liability for email in a variety of contexts, including sexual harassment, trade secret theft, defamation, and even modification/destruction (spoliation) of evidence. Congress recently held hearings regarding the alleged spoliation of email evidence by White House contractors for the Clinton administration. The problem was simple (incoming email was not properly archived), but the legal problem became complex because those messages were subject to various Justice Department and independent counsel subpoenas. The later disclosure of the “email2 problem” opened a legal Pandora’s box.

Ironically, even fixing the Love Bug problem can pose legal questions. Microsoft’s proposed draconian solution would essentially deny users the ability to receive attachments in email messages from third-party sources. Unless your company has a written email monitoring/security policy that takes advantage of the loopholes in the Electronic Communication Privacy Act (e.g., the prior consent exception and the business use exception), users can allege that the denial of attachments is an unlawful invasion of their privacy rights.

Now is a good time to either roll out your written email policy or update it to state that the company reserves the right to monitor third-party email communications, including attachments. The written email policy must eliminate any expectations of privacy that users may have to prevent a later privacy invasion claim.

In addition to having MC’s Decision Support section as a source of strategic information on new technologies and methodologies, my goal is to provide you with more best-practice information from the field, information about the legal ramifications of technology, and information to help you cut through the hype.

But I’ll need your help to make it a success. Send any feedback to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. If you have a hot idea you want to share with the midrange world, send an article idea to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

While my colleagues here at Midrange Computing are top-notch and rub elbows with industry leaders, we need your participation so that we can strive to give the most honest, timely, and accurate practices, information, and advice. I look forward to sharing and learning from you and to continuing to build upon the fine work my predecessors have done in this section.


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