CNN reported late Tuesday that a worm had hit computers in its newsroom, those at rivals ABC and the New York Times, some on Capitol Hill, and machines in Europe and Asia. Experts assumed that it was the Zotob bot worm, or one of the other bots that exploit last week's Plug and Play vulnerability on Windows 2000 machines.
CNN took the attack seriously, with reporter/anchor Wolf Blitzer at times highlighting the malware in a "Breaking News" segment. Blitzer showed video of a PC repeatedly rebooting, and warned viewers to back up all data and even to shut down their computers.
The story continued to get play on CNN's cable shows throughout the late afternoon as a "Developing Story" touted by anchors Anderson Cooper and Paula Zahn.
But Chris Carboni, a handler with the SANS Internet Storm Center (ISC), urged calm. "Likely this is an isolated event, which became newsworthy because CNN got infected," Carboni wrote on the ISC's threat thread.
"We do not see any new threats at this point. Zotob keeps mutating and finding new victims. As seen with prior TCP worms, it's reaching its peak around three days after the outbreak."
Other handlers at ISC speculated that the CNN-ABC-New York Times connection "may be as simple as reporters from these organizations visiting the same event and connecting to an infected network." Later, when the reporters returned to their offices, "these infected laptops where able to take out the network from the inside once they connected back to it."
Similar problems have plagued companies in the past, when well-defended perimeter security was defeated by an "insider" threat.
Both the Bloomberg business financial wire service and the Washington Post confirmed that computers at the news organizations had been hit, but spokespeople for both organizations weren't able to identify the attacker. CNN said that the bot worm which hit it was a Rbot variant.
The confusion about the cause of the outage was understandable, since during Tuesday, several more bot variants which exploit the Plug and Play vulnerability were identified by anti-virus vendors.
Symantec, for example, noted the appearance of Zotob.d and Zotob.e, while McAfee released an alert for a new IRC bot, dubbed "IRCbot.MS-05-039." (That bot was designated Esbot.a by Symantec.)
Both Zotob.e and Esbot.a were tagged as level "3" threats by Symantec; earlier bots that used the Plug and Play vulnerability had been marked as only "2" threats.
"I cannot believe this is happening," said Mike Murray, the director of research at vulnerability management vendor nCircle. "It just blows my mind. Microsoft's idea of an operating system lifecycle is just crazy. Patching and security matter on the old legacy stuff as much as on the new stuff."
Microsoft ended mainstream support for Windows 2000 at the end of June, but still provides patches for the aging OS, including the one released with bulletin MS05-039, which defends against attacks like the one CNN reported.
"I never thought that this was going to have these kinds of legs," added Murray. "I think it took a lot of people by surprise, a lot of administrators by surprise, too. There are obviously a lot of people running unpatched Windows 2000 machines."
CNN reported that its attacked machines constantly rebooted, a sign, said Murray of either a malformed bot or a serious problem on the victim. "That says to me that something's gotten messed up on the [attacked] PC."
The patch for the exploited vulnerability can be downloaded from Microsoft's Web site.