Microsoft surely takes the prize for buck-passing – The Guardian

So here is the “new normal”. The US has a president who is (depending on the time of day) borderline psychotic, childlike, chronically bored and/or narcissistic. He may also be a threat to the national security of his country. And he is doing things (like firing James Comey, the FBI director who was inquiring into his ties with Russia, and passing highly secret intelligence to that country’s foreign minister) that would, in normal times, have started the process of impeachment.

But these are not normal times. It doesn’t matter what Trump does for the next year because the Republicans in Congress are terrified of his supporters, who are not only unfazed by their hero’s behaviour but cannot see that he has done anything wrong. And this is possible because, as the FT columnist Edward Luce observed the other day, they are sealed inside an echo chamber in which the FBI director was not fired but resigned of his own accord and in which reports that Trump passed intelligence to the Russians are dismissed as “fake news”.

And it seems that members of Congress are so fearful of the vengeful response of Trump supporters if they suspect that their representatives are moving against him that they will sit on their hands while the president rampages through the constitution.

Meanwhile, a number of NHS hospitals and GP surgeries and numerous other organisations worldwide were rendered inoperable because their IT systems were hijacked by malware that encrypted their data and required them to pay a ransom in order to regain access to it.

It turns out that the malicious software that made this attack possible was a derivative of software developed by the US National Security Agency to enable it covertly to snoop on “persons of interest” around the globe. Fortunately, a “kill switch” for the malware was inadvertently discovered and everybody relaxed. But the next iteration of the attack is apparently already in preparation.

What links these separate disasters is the digital technology upon which the world now depends. Yet what we get in coverage of the worrying events in both the US and here is not an appreciation of the scale of the challenge posed by the technology but sanctimonious finger-pointing, jockeying for political or economic advantage and mis- or under‑reporting.

Take the ransomware attack, which exploited a vulnerability in an ancient version of Microsoft’s PC operating system – Windows XP. Commentators were quick to scapegoat those network operators that had failed to install the patch Microsoft had kindly made available to everyone after it had learned of the vulnerability. This overlooked a couple of salient points. The first is that Microsoft long ago ceased to support XP for users who did not have a special (paid-for) arrangement with the company and so many users would not have known that a patch was available.

But even if they had known, failure to install it does not automatically imply stupidity. Many organisations, such as hospitals, employ specialised equipment that was designed to work with XP and may not work with newer versions of the operating system. So an administrator might upgrade and then find that a scanner or a vital-systems monitor suddenly stop working.

The attack was good for the computer-security companies, some of whose shares rose sharply. But other companies exploited the marketing opportunities offered by the crisis. First out of the blocks was Microsoft, whose product deficiencies lay at the heart of the problem. Brad Smith, the company’s president, made a pre-emptive strike for the high moral ground. “We take every single cyber-attack on a Windows system seriously,” he blogged, “and we’ve been working around the clock since Friday to help all our customers who have been affected by this incident. This included a decision to take additional steps to assist users with older systems that are no longer supported.”

Smith went on to castigate governments – correctly – for stockpiling vulnerabilities rather than reporting them to companies. But what took the biscuit was his implication that the root of the problem was that so many people were foolish enough to continue using old versions of Windows rather than upgrading to the latest version (and forking out for both the upgrades and the new kit needed to run them). So the solution is to keep buying the latest version.

You have to admire the sheer brazenness of this: blaming users for continuing to use your defective product. It’s like Mark Zuckerberg’s idea that the solution to the problems caused by social media is… more Facebook. And it’s the kind of thinking that gives hypocrisy a bad name.


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