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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Microsoft Ships Anti-Virus Patch

SEATTLE -- Acknowledging a security breech in its flagship computer programs, Microsoft said an upgrade of its popular "Office" software suite will begin shipping this month without some of the features that have made computers vulnerable to viruses like the Melissa strain that has tied up so many corporate networks in recent days.

The word-processing program in Office 2000, "Word," will be set to automatically disable mini-programs called "macros" unless they contain special digital signatures from trusted sources. A growing number of viruses have used macros to sneak into computers and wreak havoc on networks. People who want to use macros in Word documents would have to make a decision to change the setting.

"That's a first step," said Alan Paller, director of research at SANS Institute, which trains security experts. But Paller said the action won't completely solve the problem.

Although most viruses are now spread in macros packaged with Word, if that avenue is closed hackers will use other approaches such as packaging the virus with Excel spreadsheets.

"These people are pretty smart," said Paller. "They will figure out a way."

Microsoft is reluctant to turn off the macros in Excel because macros are increasingly used in spreadsheets for such applications as expense accounts.

The default settings that Microsoft establishes when it ships its software is important because most corporate information managers tend to leave the settings that way. Changing the settings once the program has been installed in a computer can be a painstaking process.

Steve White, a computer security expert at IBM, said Microsoft could quickly wipe out a whole generation of viruses if it chose to stop exploiting macros, but he doubts this will happen because users keep demanding more functionality. He said Microsoft's approach of warning people not to open documents with macros that don't come from a trusted source won't help either.

"Melissa has shown that if a consumer sees a warning that says this document has a macro in it, most people will open it anyway," White said. White is working on a "digital immune system" that would pick up signs of a virus early on, automatically developing a cure and sending the cure across the network. He said parts of the product will be included in certain anti-virus packages released this year while a full product for corporations will come out next year.