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3/28/2009
06:44 PM
George V. Hulme
George V. Hulme
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Conficker: Loathing the FUD and Misunderstanding

Despite having the code to analyze, and Conficker being in its third-generation: it seems the experts really don't know what's going to happen when Conficker.C strikes on April 1.

Despite having the code to analyze, and Conficker being in its third-generation: it seems the experts really don't know what's going to happen when Conficker.C strikes on April 1.A couple of months ago we covered how widespread the propagation of an earlier version of the Conficker worm had become. And, in my opinion, no matter how this attack shakes out this week: fast-spreading worms capable of building vast a botnet for Spam, distributed denial-of-service attacks, or other crimes are a clear danger. They are not a joke.

Yet, the fear, uncertainty, and doubt being spread around Conficker has overflowed my buffers for tolerance. So has the disinformation. With headlines like the New York Times' "Conficker Worm: April Fool's Joke or Unthinkable Disaster."

This headline has it wrong on both counts. Millions of systems have already been infected. ISPs and hosting companies around the globe have scrambled to stop its spread. Microsoft has offered a $250,000 bounty for those behind the worm. It's not a joke.

As for "Unthinkable Disaster?" Please.

My associate Thomas Claburn outlined some of the inflated fears in his story, Conficker Worm Worries Exaggerated.

But there's lots of shoddy analysis to go around.

Consider this story from CBCNews in Canada, Conficker: world's greatest April Fool's joke or 'digital Pearl Harbor'?:

Airplanes won't fall out of the sky, and your banking information is probably safe, says John Leishman, of Geeks on the Way, a North American computer-troubleshooting company based in Calgary.

"We used to dread when a new virus came out," Leishman told CBCNews.ca. "Our phones were overrun. Even though it was our business, it wasn't good for long-term corporate relations."

During those bad old days of viral infections, truly nasty things happened, he said. Computers were shut down, systems hacked, data wiped out.

"Now it's more ego driven, rather than maliciously driven," said Leishman. Data is no longer lost the way it used to be, because so many computer users have become wiser and anti-viral software better.

What pile of obsolete CRTs has this guy been sleeping under?

First, Conficker.C is more of a threat to Web sites, corporate networks, and other Internet-networked services than individual PCs. These botnets are designed, generally, to spew Spam or shoot so much traffic as to interrupt the availability of networks or Web sites in distributed denial of service attacks. Especially in this case, the end user systems are targeted only as a means to an end: they are not the end goal.

Second, renting these botnets is big business in the underground. Botnet owners rent their ability to send spam. And, it is apparently profitable.

Third, many of the major worms: Code Red, SQL Slammer, Blaster didn't destroy anything (except availability) in their wake. And, up until very recently, most "hacks" were performed by the curious and technically inclined to snoop on digital networks where they didn't belong.

Today, malware is more crime driven than ever before. And by crime, I mean more than trespassing. I mean data theft, identity theft, spam, spyware, phishing attacks, credit card theft, etc.

Forth, and this is the most debatable point. I believe anti-virus has helped to reduce some classes of viruses: but this is not why data isn't the target as was the case with such mass e-mailers as the ILOVEYOU virus of 2000. Data isn't destroyed because spyware and worms that destroy data don't propagate well, as they're quickly identified. This flies against the need to be stealthy to be profitable.

As you probably already know. The Conficker worm is scheduled to try to contact up to 50,000 domains from around the world to get its next set of instructions. And it's those orders that will reveal what Conficker's management has in mind for this network.

Perhaps the best news on the current state of Conficker comes from Washington Post's Brian Krebs.

Krebs details how a group, dubbed the Conficker Cabal, has managed to engage all of the countries whose country codes will be used by the worm authors to create domains the worm will try to contact to get those instructions. According to Krebs' reporting: the Conficker Cabal has managed to get the co-operation of all of the 110 nations to block the registration of Conficker-related domains. That's all of the countries except for one: the Republic of Congo.

That kind of massive response is no joke either. And shows how the globe can pull together in the face of a pressing threat and unknown. Hopefully, that's the legacy left by Conficker.C.

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