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Commentary

Anticipating Government Overreaction To An Actual Conficker Attack

Most governments tend to overreact, and the U.S. probably leads the pack. Fortunately, we survived Conficker on Wednesday, but what if it had resulted in a massive amount of damage? Would the government's response have done more damage than the worm?
Most governments tend to overreact, and the U.S. probably leads the pack. Fortunately, we survived Conficker on Wednesday, but what if it had resulted in a massive amount of damage? Would the government's response have done more damage than the worm?The odds are likely because we have a history of inordinately responding to disasters and then regretting our response later.

While it isn't clear what actually happened with Conficker yet, perhaps enough people were prepared so that no disaster occurred. Or perhaps the worm's writer decided against doing a lot of damage. Or maybe we were just crying wolf. But what about next time? We operate in a world where cybersecurity is an afterthought in most states (in the U.S., it isn't even clear who is in charge of it at the moment), and where we have increasingly fast networks that could be, and are, used to move malware almost instantly to all parts of the globe. Since we dodged the bullet this time, the loud warnings become background noise and are increasingly ignored. This makes it likely that, eventually, we are going to have a massive virus-driven outage. It will likely be a Hurricane Katrina moment for a number of governments.

One thing we can expect is that the various political bodies will overreact. You could see governments banning Windows or all Microsoft products; you could see government PCs being locked down; you could see laws holding Internet service providers liable for allowing the virus to spread; you could see hackers broadly branded as terrorists and their legal punishments escalating; you could see government scanning of private networks increasing dramatically; and you could see a sharp move away from PC technology for all critical systems.

But what you probably won't see is a measured review of what happened and a solution that focuses on ensuring a disaster like it won't happen again.

Most large firms have disaster plans -- hopefully, most now include provisions for a cyberattack. If yours doesn't, you may want to fix that. I'm actually more worried about the government overreacting and doing stupid things, like pulling the plug on most network traffic, or moving to something like 100 percent network traffic scanning and returning us to the pre-Internet age overnight. For large companies, ensure you have solid contacts in the office of cybersecurity, and know who to call in the case of a disaster. Then you'll have access to the government resources you need, and this will help ensure these agencies don't do more harm than a virus itself.

But given our recent history with everything from the response to 9/11 to that of the economic crisis, there is significant grounds to be concerned that a major successful virus attack, while damaging, will pale in the face of a poorly thought-out and executed government response. I think we should begin considering how to avoid that, or at least protect ourselves from government overreaction.

-- Rob Enderle is president and founder of Enderle Group. Special to Dark Reading.

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