News > Technology
Microsoft: Bounty hunter
The world's No. 1 software company announces a $5M reward program to help catch virus authors.
November 5, 2003: 1:12 PM EST
By Paul R. La Monica, CNN/Money Senior Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Attention virus writers. Microsoft is putting a bounty on your heads.

The world's largest software company announced Wednesday in Washington that it is creating an anti-virus reward program, backed by $5 million of its cash, to help law enforcement agencies catch the authors of computer worms.

Virus writers beware, there's a new sheriff in town...Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates.  
Virus writers beware, there's a new sheriff in town...Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates.

As the first part of the program, Microsoft (MSFT: Research, Estimates) announced two $250,000 rewards, a total of $500,000, for information that leads to the arrest of the writers of two nasty computer worms -- the Blaster worm and SoBig.F e-mail virus -- that crippled many PCs running on the Microsoft Windows operating system this summer. Microsoft did not announce specific plans for the remaining $4.5 million in the reward program.

"These are real crimes that disrupt the lives of real people," said Brad Smith, Microsoft senior vice president and general counsel.

But will a bounty actually work? Some tech observers were skeptical.

"This could totally backfire," said Richard Williams, strategist for Summit Analytic Partners, a research firm that focuses on software. "Virus writers are very much driven by the same motivation that makes people climb mountains. To put a bounty on their heads will just increase their notoriety and increase their ego."

Still, others thought that the lure of riches could spur more hackers to give information to law enforcers about those responsible for the most nefarious worms and viruses.

Will Microsoft's offer of $5 million in reward money help nab virus writers?

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"This could increase the likelihood that virus writers will get caught," said Joe Wilcox, an analyst with Jupiter Research. "The Web is like the Wild Wild West. Back then they had 'Wanted' posters and rewards. In a way, this is kind of like that. The virus writers are the gunslingers of the modern age."

The Redmond, Wash.-based software maker has been suffering from bad publicity since the outbreak of Blaster and SoBig.F in August and early September. Another worm, dubbed Nachi, also plagued users of Microsoft software during the summer.

During Microsoft's latest quarterly earnings conference call last month, Chief Financial Officer John Connors said that security for its customers was now Microsoft's No. 1 priority.

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The establishment of a bounty could be a quick way to address the problem and stem some of the backlash. Steve Jillings, president and CEO of FrontBridge Technologies, an e-mail security firm, said that Microsoft's reward program could help deter some virus writers but added that bounties were not a complete solution.

"This is a Band-Aid that does not fix the core root of the problem. People don't look to Microsoft as a trusted security source," said Jillings.

Microsoft's Smith stressed that the company is continuing to work on enhanced security features for current editions of Windows as well as for the next version of its operating system, called Longhorn, that is due out in 2005. He added that Microsoft, which had more than $51 billion in cash as of the end of October, would commit more financial resources to the security problem.

Microsoft Corporation
Computer Worm
Computer Software

"If we need to spend more money, we will spend more money," said Smith.

Microsoft bought the assets of a small Romanian anti-virus software developer, GeCAD Software, in June, and says it plans to use GeCAD's technology to develop its own anti-virus products.

Still, some have argued that Microsoft may be better off acquiring a larger anti-virus firm, such as Symantec (SYMC: Research, Estimates) or Network Associates (NET: Research, Estimates).

Shares of Microsoft (MSFT: Research, Estimates) were flat in afternoon trading Wednesday. The stock has gained just 2 percent year-to-date, lagging the strong performance of many other large tech stocks during this year's rally.  Top of page

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