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Software scans for rogue applets

McAfee will introduce a program that will screen out hostile ActiveX controls or Java applets downloaded from Web sites or received over email.

    CussOut seemed like an ordinary ActiveX control. But instead of twirling animations or some audio, users who downloaded the program from the Internet got a special surprise: CussOut rifled through their email directories and sent obscene email to every address it could find.

    On Monday, McAfee will introduce a program, WebScanX, that will screen out such hostile ActiveX controls or Java applets downloaded from Web sites or received over email, the company said today.

    Unlike traditional virus scanning software, which scours standalone programs on computer hard disks, WebScanX checks code that is downloaded and run through a Web browser.

    "[CussOut] was fairly embarrassing for the individual," Zach Nelson, general manager of the network management division at McAfee Software (MCAF), said of the user who reported the rogue control to the company. "I do believe his mother was on the distribution list."

    The number of hostile applets on the Net still pales in comparison to the thousands of viruses circulating on networks and PCs. McAfee's Nelson said that the WebScanX product protects against 100 to 200 known hostile applets, but the company can update the program as soon as more as discovered. Unlike viruses, which "self-propagate" or reproduce themselves across hard disks and networks, McAfee defines hostile applets as programs that deliberately crash PCs, erase files, and perform other malicious functions.

    Nelson admits, though, that a number of those hostile applets were developed for experimental purposes by programmers who were more interested in showing the negative potential of a technology rather than destroying or stealing data.

    McAfee's new program is not the first product to monitor for hostile applets. An Israeli company, Finjan Software, offers a code-checking product called Surfin Shield that works in tandem with Web browsers. But McAfee says that size matters in the virus business and believes that its 25 million existing users will be able to report hostile programs more quickly than the relatively small audience for Finjan.

    WebScanX will sell for $39.95 and will be available August 1.