Tech journalists are more interested in crises like the Explorer bug than
the fundamental problems behind them
Ever wonder how the news really works behind the scenes? I got a powerful
firsthand lesson on 3 March, when <http://www.wpi.edu/>Worcester
Polytechnic student Paul Greene discovered that "serious flaw" in
Microsoft's Internet Explorer. That's when I became the unwitting source of
a sound bite that overshadowed the real news.
My first indication that something was up was an email from Gene Spafford,
who has been my co-author and editor on three computer-security books. Gene
subscribes to email@example.com, a "full-disclosure" mailing list about
hot computer security holes. The subject line was "FYI - browser bug." The
message pointed to Greene's <http://www.cybersnot.com/iebug.html>Cybersnot
As I read the message, my jaw dropped. "Cool," I thought. "I can run any
program I want on anybody's computer who looks at my Web page with Internet
Explorer." Sort of like ActiveX without the code-signing.
Five minutes later, my phone rang. It was Thomas Reardon, who works at
Microsoft on IE. "I want you to know that this isn't an ActiveX problem,"
were the first words out of his mouth.
I told Reardon that I had read the Cybersnot message and didn't think that
this IE problem was any more significant than the numerous security
problems that have plagued Netscape's Java engine. After all, the
<http://www.cs.princeton.edu/sip>Secure Internet Programming group at
Princeton University had discovered a dozen or so ways of making Java
Virtual Machines run arbitrary machine code. The only difference between
their attacks and this one was that you needed to be fluent in Java
bytecodes, x86 assembler language, and obscure type systems in order to
exploit the Princeton attacks. For the Greene bug, all you needed to know
But Reardon was worried. He said that his co-workers at Microsoft were
certain that the press was going to burn them alive. And the bug was so
simple - just two flipped bits in IE's registry entries. Internet Explorer
has a list indicating whether files are safe or dangerous to open, Reardon
explained to me. URL files and LNK files had been listed as safe, meaning
it's OK for IE to open them without first asking the user's permission.
They should have been listed as dangerous.
Next, my pager went off. My friend Beth Weise, cyberspace correspondent for
the Associated Press, wanted me to call another reporter and fill him in. I
tried to stress to the reporter that the real problem wasn't Internet
Explorer - it's the fact that people use the Windows operating system,
which has no built-in security. "What we really need is secure operating
systems, but corporate America doesn't buy them," I said. But that didn't
make for a good story.
The AP story must have gone out over the wire about 10 minutes after I hung
up the phone, because I had just sat down to dinner when my phone rang
again. This time it was CBS Radio News. They wanted to do an
interview-to-tape right then! So I told the guy from CBS the same thing I
had told George from the AP. The impact of this bug, I said, was that it
acted as if somebody were messing with your computer while you "went out to
That "lunch" quote had wings of its own. Within the next 24 hours I was
quoted on CNN, CNBC, National Public Radio, and in dozens of publications.
The Seattle Times ran my quote. It was really weird, because the woman who
wrote the story knows me, knows my home phone number, but she found it
easier just to grab the quote from the AP than to call me up and get the
story behind the sound bite.
This sort of quote reuse is actually typical for the nation's news
services. I shouldn't be surprised. But I was upset that everybody focused
on the immediate problem - a bug (oh no!) in Internet Explorer.
Nobody asked why today's computers are so brittle that a single bug could
leave a Web surfer wide open to attack.
Nobody made the connection between this bug in Internet Explorer and
ActiveX. Microsoft goes to great pains to make sure that security-critical
bugs like this don't slip into its applications, and yet this one did. What
about signed ActiveX components? They're sure to have security-critical
bugs as well - especially since many of them will be written in C++. This
is a problem that Java applets simply don't have, because they run within
the restricted sandbox environment.
Nobody seems to be looking to the future. We're building a wired world, but
all those wires are crossed. We've had a lot of warnings. Pretty soon,
we're going to start having disasters. It's time we started looking harder
at the threats.
This message (C) Simson L. Garfinkel. .
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