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Friday, August 7, 1998 Published at 18:29 GMT 19:29 UK


How the Web grabs you

Are you sure you know what you are downloading? ... heh heh heh

By BBC Internet Correspondent Chris Nuttall
A duo of downloads released over the Web this week could radically rearrange your hard disk as well as giving unparalleled Internet access.

But while one is benign and from an established name, the other is potentially malignant and unofficial in the extreme.

The latter, Back Orifice, has prompted Microsoft to issue a security bulletin instructing Windows users on how not to fall victim to it.

Dead cow products

The remote-access program was announced at a hackers' convention, DEF CON, in Las Vegas last weekend by a group known as Cult of the Dead Cow.

Its spokesman 'Sir Dystic' said it could be used legitimately for network administration and remote tech support. But, downloaded unwittingly by a user, it could allow others to take over the person's computer.

The download at Cult of the Dead Cow's Website allows would-be hackers to install a program with a user-friendly interface enabling them to control other Network- or Internet-linked computers which have the same program.

Victims could have been duped into installing it on their machines by activating an e-mail attachment or downloading the program under a different name.

Once installed, Sir Dystic said, the remote user would have more control over the computer than the local one and could invisibly meddle with files, grab video from any cameras hooked up, view the screen and monitor what is typed on the keyboard, including passwords.

But he maintained the program's real intention was to force Microsoft to address the security holes in Windows 95 and 98. The complacent tone of the company's security bulletin suggests this has not had the desired effect.

Discovering your hard disk

While Back Orifice is certainly not a recommended download, AltaVista Discovery, also made available on Monday, most definitely is.

For years, I have been looking for something which will cost little or nothing but will sort out the mess of my hard disk so I can find past stories and memos or agency copy I have pigeonholed as future feature ideas.

AltaVista developed such a product but sold it as AltaVista Personal. Now it is available free as Discovery. The only drawback is the length of time and potential cost of downloading a 10MB file, although it is expected to appear on computer magazine covers' CD-Roms shortly.

Discovery installs as a toolbar across the top of the screen. It indexes the hard disk at chosen intervals and then allows simple or advanced searches for information across dozens of file types. The results appear in a browser window and look just a like a normal results page from an Internet search on AltaVista's Website.

Clicking on the hotlink though will open the local file in its native program or there is a Quickview option. E-mail is also indexed, very useful if you have thousands of messages squirreled away, as well as browsed Web pages.

Discovery, unsurprisingly, links to AltaVista's site for Web searches and this appears to be the thinking behind the decision to give the software away free. With the battle raging in America over bringing "eyeballs" to sites to produce advertising revenue, AltaVista could be stealing a march over other "portals" trying to do the same by aggregating a range of services on their sites.

But such stratagems need not concern mere mortals such as ourselves, when all we want to do is find that letter to Aunt Sally we left unfinished three months ago.

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