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Blaster from the past: The worm that zapped XP 10 years ago

The Blaster worm was one in a string of attacks that prompted Microsoft to get serious about security

August 15, 2013 02:10 PM ET

Computerworld - Ten years ago this week, the Blaster worm swept through Windows XP and Windows 2000 networks, bringing some government agencies to a halt and perhaps contributing to a major power blackout in the Northeast U.S.

Blaster, also dubbed the DCOM Worm and Lovsan, first appeared on Aug. 11, 2003, and exploited a known Windows vulnerability in a component that handled the RPC (Remote Procedure Call) protocol. Microsoft had patched the bug the month before.

The worm targeted Microsoft's Windows Update service and website for a distributed denial-of-service attack (DDoS). But because the hackers aimed at the wrong URL, the attack did not hamper Windows Update's operation.

Its side effect was worse, as it created a buffer overload on infected PCs, causing them to display an error message, crash and then reboot. At a minimum, tens of thousands of Windows PCs worldwide were affected.

Blaster also played a small role in the massive Aug. 14, 2003, blackout that knocked out power in parts of eastern Canada and many states in the Northeast and Midwest United States. An estimated 54 million people were affected by the outage.

But the worm's impact was larger than its immediate threat to Windows PCs.

Microsoft reacted to the attacks by issuing Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) in August 2004, a year after Blaster. XP SP2, unlike previous service packs, included new features, among them several dedicated to security.

Some of the other initiatives, including a famous email that then-CEO Bill Gates issued to the company stressing the importance of security, had preceded Blaster. "When we face a choice between adding features and resolving security issues, we need to choose security," Gates wrote in that memo.

Blaster, in fact, was just one of a string of high-profile, quickly-spreading pieces of malware that hammered Windows machines, especially those running the then-relatively-new Windows XP. In 2001, it had been Code Red and Nimda; in 2002, it was SQL Slammer and then Blaster; and in 2003 along came Sasser.

"It's all a blur," said Wes Miller, now an analyst with Directions on Microsoft but in 2003 a program manager at Microsoft working in the Windows Core OS division.

To Miller, Code Red, Nimda, Slammer, Blaster and Sasser came so hard and fast that they blended into one long nightmare.

"Absolutely," said Miller when asked whether Blaster was one of the events that prompted Microsoft to focus on security in Windows XP SP2. But it wasn't the only worm to do that.

"Nimda was a slap in the face," Miller said of the worm that debuted Sept. 18, 2001, just a week after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. "But we didn't react as fast as we should have. We didn't respond. We should have done Windows XP SP2 before 2004."

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