The world's most popular free email service is overloading ISPs with virus-ridden mail causing havoc for their technical staff, according to British ISP Star Internet.
Star reckons Microsoft's Hotmail is responsible for the majority of viruses it receives and accuses the service of inundating it with as many as 122 different strains over the last six months.
According to Mark Sunner of Star Internet's product development department, Hotmail's apparent role in disseminating malicious computer code is due to the way in which all public email services send mail. "The main reason that Hotmail is top of the pops is because it is sends mail over HTTP and so viruses are not detected by a company's ordinary firewall security," says Sunner. "Hotmail does have a virus scanner, but you actually have to ask for it and they don't have the same anti-virus facilities as us."
According to Sunner, as recently as a few weeks ago Hotmail was incapable of detecting the Melissa Virus . . "Hotmail runs on a Free BSD server and until a couple of weeks ago the anti-virus software written for it wasn't able to detect a range of viruses, including Melissa."
Countering Sunner's claims, a spokesman for Hotmail says its anti-virus measures are comprehensive. "Hotmail is the only Internet email service that offers anti-virus protection for incoming attachments, and this is FREE as part of Hotmail. We are committed to helping protect users from viruses, and have implemented McAfee's virus scanning software solution."
The spokesman however admits that scanning outgoing email attachments is something Hotmail could potentially look into. "As we do not currently virus-scan outgoing email or attachments, we are evaluating whether this is something we'll implement in the future."
Ironically, while Star congratulates itself for highlighting Hotmail's vulnerabilities, Anti-virus companies have criticised Star for promoting its own anti-virus capabilities at the expense of other companies. Graham Cluley product manager at Sophos anti-virus gives a scathing interpretation of Star Internet's behaviour, "We would rather they grew up and got on with their work to be perfectly honest. Hotmail has millions of users and millions of messages sent every day, so 122 viruses isn't an awful lot."
Jack Clark, European product manager for Network Associates Anti-Virus comes to a similar conclusion, "You have to look at the number of users Hotmail has, then it is not surprising that it produces a lot of viruses."
Director of Web services at Hushmail.com Brain Smith, says that even his company's Java-based and encrypted email service cannot check every file it sends. "We were completely virus free up until a few months ago, when everyone started clamouring for attachments. When people start downloading attachments there is nothing you can do about it. Hotmail can't be expected to check every single attachment that goes through its system."
Sunner nevertheless insists that Star Internet's comments were not designed to belittle Hotmail but to increase the awareness of viruses transmitted via Internet based mail services. "We want to draw the attention of IT managers to this rather than just saying, 'hey look at Hotmail.' The point we are making is that it can be beneficial to have anti-virus protection at an ISP as well as at source."
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