Just returned from vacation? Ready to plop down in front of the computer and catch up on e-mail? Think first. The spate of viruses in the last weeks means that home and work computers are poised to launch a secondary round of infection. If loose lips used to sink ships, a careless double-click on an attachment can sink systems. The flood of waiting spam complicates matters, for one thing because it's so tedious to click through, and because the phony messages generated by the SoBig virus look like ordinary spam. They blur into one stream of annoyance and lost productivity.
Home users need to be more careful, since more than 60% don't have current anti-virus software, according to a TechTV report. However, much of the problem is inherent in Microsoft Corp.'s global dominance. Because Microsoft strictly limits computer makers and system administrators from altering its operating systems and embedded software, which run on more than 90% of the world's personal computers, hackers can get into hundreds of millions of computers by exploiting a single vulnerability. Buy a list of millions of e-mail addresses for as little as $15 and you're on your way.
Keeping computers updated is a cumbersome process. It usually means knowing whatever new flaw a hacker has identified in Microsoft Outlook, the company 's buggy e-mail vehicle, and plugging into the Microsoft Web site to load a corrective patch. The company declines to provide human help to consumers.
Microsoft has filed a battery of lawsuits in the U.S. and United Kingdom to stop spam and wants a federal anti-spam law, but its attitude about its own products is cavalier.
Spam and viruses are very different technically, but in their seeming evil intent and harm to productivity, end users often see little distinction. Even the Direct Marketing Assn. has started a campaign called "operation slam spam" to help quash bulk e-mailers. Congress is jumping on the anti-spam bandwagon as well.
The Anti-Spam Act of 2003 would require senders of commercial electronic mail to reveal real e-mail addresses and allow customers to be taken off lists. Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) is backing a similar bill. The trick is catching spammers, who are disguised and often offshore.
Ultimately, the spam/virus/worm war has the feel of Mad magazine's Spy vs. Spy. One side invents a big club and the other responds with an exploding target. It's not Microsoft's fault that hackers are intent on disrupting computers, but the company shouldn't handcuff everyone else. Users and system administrators should at least be free to alter the software to fix holes in it.