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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reality Bytes: Windows Backdoor May Let in Big Brother




The continuing story of Bill Gates is still full of plot twists: For every champagne breakfast with pancakes there's a tricky press conference to give at lunch time.


The latest cloud on Microsoft's horizon appeared on Aug. 31. Andrew Fernandes of the Canadian company Cryptonym (www.cryptonym.com/hottopics/


msft-nsa.html) discovered that the safety systems of Microsoft Windows 95, 98, NT and 2000 have built-in "backdoors" through which other people can receive information - people from the U.S. National Security Agency, for example.


It was while working on his own program that Fernandes came across some debugging information in one of the system files in the Windows NT Service Pack 5; information that is usually removed when the product is released on the market. One of the subprograms was called <_NSAKEY> and gives the user with the right key the privileges of a system administrator on any computer running under Windows.


Microsoft instantly posted an explanation on the web (www.microsoft.com/


presspass/press/1999/Sept99/


RSAPR.htm). It's not our fault, we didn't give any keys away, and we use the name <_NSAKEY> for convenience.


This is, of course, the only way they could react. If anyone had proved the opposite, Bill Gates would be playing ukulele in shopping malls for a living, as all his hard-earned billions would be paid out in compensation for moral damages. Microsoft announced that they had in fact been offered an underhand deal of this nature but turned it down as they thought it would be "bad for the consumer."


If Fernandes is right, then the SORM surveillance project being set up by Russia's Federal Security Service is wimpish by comparison. About 90 percent of the globe's computers use Windows, and a fair number of them contain valuable political, economic and military information. Now it seems that this information can theoretically be accessed by the "men in black" from Langley, Virginia.


As for Microsoft, no one can remember when they first discredited themselves. In March, thousands of American computers were put out of action by attacks from hackers who had found a hole in the safety system of Windows NT. In August, we found out that even toddlers can read other people's letters in the free e-mail service Hotmail (the Swedish leader of Hackers Unite who broke into Hotmail is 18). It's easy to guess what the days to come have in store for us: new surprises, new holes in safety systems and new mistakes.


The sad fact is that we don't know the true nature of the programs we have on our computers - Microsoft hasn't made public the full source code of their operational systems. This is understandable, because from inside Windows is probably full of holes. But the Windows folder on my computer takes up 338 MB, and I'd like to know what all those megabytes are really made of.


Daniil Dougaev (daniel@sptimes.ru) writes about computers and the Internet for Kariera-Kapital, a Russian-language newspaper published in St. Petersburg by Independent Media.