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Anticipating The First Car Virus

I've been thinking a lot about Intel's acquisition of McAfee, and recently spent the afternoon with the company reviewing its strategy. Intel doesn't want to repeat the mistake made with the PC in regard to malware as we move to more common interfaces, operating systems, and network-connected TVs, appliances, manufacturing equipment, air conditioning and heating systems -- and, yes, automobiles and motorcycles. While a virus or an attack on a PC or server is certainly painful, the same attack on
I've been thinking a lot about Intel's acquisition of McAfee, and recently spent the afternoon with the company reviewing its strategy. Intel doesn't want to repeat the mistake made with the PC in regard to malware as we move to more common interfaces, operating systems, and network-connected TVs, appliances, manufacturing equipment, air conditioning and heating systems -- and, yes, automobiles and motorcycles. While a virus or an attack on a PC or server is certainly painful, the same attack on a plane or motor vehicle could be deadly.We had a lot of warning with sneaker-net viruses that spread via floppy disk at the beginning of the PC era, but we didn't take those warnings seriously. As a result, Microsoft focused exclusively on high levels of standardization and ease of use with no real focus on security or malware. This clearly was a better strategy than Unix, which was more secure, but had huge standardization and ease-of-use issues. This created an environment that made Microsoft and PC users excessively vulnerable, and the virus waves of the late '90s and early '00s were painful for many of us.

Embedded systems, smartphones, and tablets haven't gone through this same level of standardization, so viruses and malware don't spread as easily across them. However, adoption has slowed, and these distinct differences also make applications that run consistently across most of them an exception rather than a rule. When you move to embedded systems, the differences and related problems with consistency and ease of use go vertical, and so does the relative cost of the solution. But Intel and others are attempting to bring the same kind of commonality and network connectivity to these new classes; as they do that, the same kind of exposures will result.

The problems initially will most likely center around access and causing a system to crash. But as consistency spreads, the opportunity to remotely take control of the product, remove critical information from it, or to become a host for spreading malware becomes far greater. And if this isn't addressed directly at the start, the cost and usability improvements being contemplated could result in catastrophes we likely can't yet really imagine.

During the past several years, McAfee has been acquiring technology in anticipation of this trend and actually has a credible set of tools targeting these new product areas. These tools, and the security expertise of the McAfee employees, are what Intel was focused on -- not specifically the AV technology. However, this should serve as a warning to the other vendors looking at this new space that if they don't build in security at the start, the next BP-like disaster could have your corporate brand on it -- and the result could be both company and career-limiting.

Your career, your life, and the lives of your loved ones could depend on someone thinking through today the security exposures of the future and doing something about them. Something to ponder this week.

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

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