Microsoft Puts Up $5M Bounty to Nab Malicious Code Writers

Virus attacks will cost businesses $12.5B this year

WASHINGTON -- The top target of virus writers, Microsoft Corp., is taking the offensive with a $5 million reward fund intended to catch malicious code writers who are costing businesses billions each year.

Law enforcement agencies welcomed the help, and security experts said such rewards may produce good leads. But some IT managers said last week that Microsoft could find better ways to spend the money.

"I would rather see Microsoft make a solid investment in prevention and containment" of viruses, said Connie Sadler, IT security director at Brown University in Providence, R.I. As it is, it's up to users to build barriers that limit the damage from a virus or worm, she said.

Brown has network firewall rules that prevent one dorm from communicating with another if a problem occurs, said Sadler. "It would be nice to see some network operating system that would help us do that," she said.

Hugh McArthur, information security officer at McLean, Va.-based Online Resources Corp., an online bill-processing firm, also had doubts about the reward program's effectiveness. "It does not address the underlying issue that the vulnerabilities that the worms and viruses attack still exist," he said. "The resources might be better spent fixing those problems than going after [virus writers]."

Multiple Fronts

Microsoft officials said the reward fund, announced last week, isn't a substitute for improving the security of its Windows software, which remains the company's top security priority. The reward program was spawned in recognition that the company needs "to move on multiple fronts" to address the problem, said Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel.

There's no question that the problem is a huge one. According to security software maker Symantec Corp., 450 new viruses and worms are released each month. Most are written by males age 14 to 24, said Carey Nachenberg, chief architect at the Cupertino, Calif.-based company. "The majority of those threats are targeting the Windows platform," he said.

Computer Economics Inc., a Carlsbad, Calif.-based consultancy, estimates that virus attacks will cost businesses worldwide $12.5 billion this year, a figure expected to rise to $14 billion next year. That includes costs related to business interruptions and IT security service purchases, among other factors.

Law enforcement officials from the FBI and U.S. Secret Service joined Microsoft in announcing the program but offered no prediction on its success.

The first two rewards were set at $250,000 each for the authors of the MSBlast.A worm and the Sobig virus. Some security analysts said the rewards may encourage independent computer experts, hackers, corporate IT professionals and others to undertake detective work. If a malicious code author "did it for bragging rights, or as a general 'experiment,' then there is a chance that a reward might turn up leads," said Eugene Spafford, director of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

Rewards programs have been successful for the FBI and other law enforcement agencies and should work well in the digital realm, said Patrick Gray, a former FBI agent and head of the emergency response team at Atlanta-based Internet Security Systems.

"It's unfortunate that things have come to this," Gray said. "But it's time to stop focusing only on the buggy software and go after the criminal elements that exploit [it] as well."

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