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Expert confirms 'Russian New Year' danger

Excel security problem highlights a new era of risks, says ICSA's Thompson.


January 11, 1999
Web posted at: 3:18 p.m. EDT (1518 GMT)

by Stan Miastkowski

(IDG) -- Computer viruses and other security threats hit the headlines so often that it's easy to become blasť about them -- but the "Russian New Year" problem is not business as usual.

Reported earlier this week by the Israel-based security company Finjan, the "exploitation" is said to let hackers access any machine that has Excel 95 or 97 using a combination of HTML from a Web browser and Excel's CALL function. (It's claimed that Excel doesn't have to be running for the damage to be done.)

Further muddying the Russian New Year situation, Microsoft responded that the company knew about the issue in December and posted a fix for it. And both Microsoft and Finjan agree that there haven't yet been any confirmed real-world reports of the threat actually being used.

Both also agree that it's a good idea to disable Excel's CALL function.

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One independent expert confirms Finjan's claim that Russian New Year may be the beginning of a new era of computer security problems. Roger Thompson, director of antivirus and malicious code research for the International Computer Security Association, says the technique is "genuine and dangerous", the first security threat that can cause real damage to your PC without your taking any action such as opening a file.

Thompson adds that it's the "key to a deeper set of potential threats that can remotely run any program on your machine."

Thompson criticizes Finjan for rushing to announce Russian New Year before the industry was prepared with solutions. And while he agrees that there haven't been any confirmed reports of the problem, he fears that now that the news is out, hackers will rush to exploit it.

He also blames Microsoft for overdoing "PR spin" in reaction to Finjan's announcement, and for not yet releasing a fix for Excel 95 and for Internet Explorer 3.x, and for not releasing fixes in languages other than English. (The company's December patch only covers Excel 97; Internet Explorer 4.01 already includes built-in protection.)

More ominously, Thompson hints of a Pandora's Box, with "lots of other things... waiting to be discovered" by hackers. With today's operating systems and applications, "the more powerful you make them, the less secure they are," he says. "Security and functionality exist in an inverse relationship."

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