12/30/2008
03:22 PM
Keith Ferrell
Keith Ferrell
Commentary

Security 2008: Bad Year, But Better Than What's Ahead

How bad were the security challenges in 2008? Bad! And a glance back over the year leads to the conclusion that 2009 is going to be worse.



How bad were the security challenges in 2008? Bad! And a glance back over the year leads to the conclusion that 2009 is going to be worse.The sheer volume of attacks, exploits and malicious strategies and the ease with which so many of us make those attacks possible was, for me, the top security story of the year.

From botnets coming into their own as the attack method of choice -- why do more bad work than you have to when there are tens of millions of unprotected computers out there waiting to do your phishing and malware spreading for you? -- to the still -- still! -- lax patching habits and security procedures of both individuals and companies, 2008 looks to me like the year the bad guys ramped up their act to the next level.

The best examples of this, again from my perspective, was the takedown of McColo Corporation's servers, which resulted in an all too brief 50 percent decline in worldwide spam traffic.

The point isn't the takedown -- good as it was. It was the reminder that the same tools that have made the computer and Internet so central to our businesses -- automation, ease of copying, instantaneous communications -- work just as well for the cybercrooks as they do for the rest of us. Automated attacks have long been a problem; this past year we got a sense of just how big the problem is becoming and how fast it was growing.

The lightspeed spread of inflected sites and computers as a result of this month's Explorer hole exploit is another reminder of just how automated the other side is, as if we needed one.

These sorts of tools, in turn, have led to an increasingly organized and even stratified underground economy. Our personal and financial information are commodities openly for sale -- as are the tools used to steal this information from us. As the legit economy gets worse, so will the reach of the shadow economy.

The other side of this coin is how easy so many of us make it for the crooks to get at that information. The DNS server hole flap of late summer made us aware of vulnerabilities at the heart of the Internet, but just as disturbing -- more so, in my opinion -- was the news that 90 percent of exploits take advantage of unpatched holes for which patches have been available for months.

Nothing new about this, either -- the year started with a mass hack that took advantage of an unpatched hole.

Odds are next year will start with something similar, and probably worse.

And there's no reason for us to expect it not to. As long as there are individuals, companies and institutions taking a lax -- if even that -- approach to the most routine security matters, the crooks are halfway home (and office) without lifting a finger.

(And bear in mind that laxness extends to devices that can be -- and are -- physically stolen.)

Put it all together, add the economic collapse, and toss in the unpatched vulnerabilities that remain a persistent problem (and, frankly, will remain problematic even after a patch is released, if patch practice remains as consistent as it has for years) and you get a sense of why 2008 strikes me as a particularly bad year on various security fronts.

Can next year be worse?

All too easily.

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