The program was intended to be a digital “Kilroy Was Here.” Just a bit of cybernetic fungus that would unobtrusively wander the net. However, a programming error turned it into a harbinger heralding the arrival of a darker cyberspace, more of a mirror for all of the chaos and conflict of the physical world than a utopian refuge from it.
Since then things have gotten much, much worse.
Bad enough that there is a growing belief among engineers and security experts that Internet security and privacy have become so maddeningly elusive that the only way to fix the problem is to start over.
What a new Internet might look like is still widely debated, but one alternative would, in effect, create a “gated community” where users would give up their anonymity and certain freedoms in return for safety. Today that is already the case for many corporate and government Internet users. As a new and more secure network becomes widely adopted, the current Internet might end up as the bad neighborhood of cyberspace. You would enter at your own risk and keep an eye over your shoulder while you were there.
“Unless we’re willing to rethink today’s Internet,” says Nick McKeown, a Stanford engineer involved in building a new Internet, “we’re just waiting for a series of public catastrophes.”
That was driven home late last year, when a malicious software program thought to have been unleashed by a criminal gang in Eastern Europe suddenly appeared after easily sidestepping the world’s best cyberdefenses. Known as Conficker, it quickly infected more than 12 million computers, ravaging everything from the computer system at a surgical ward in England to the computer networks of the French military.
Conficker remains a ticking time bomb. It now has the power to lash together those infected computers into a vast supercomputer called a botnet that can be controlled clandestinely by its creators. What comes next remains a puzzle. Conficker could be used as the world’s most powerful spam engine, perhaps to distribute software programs to trick computer users into purchasing fake antivirus protection. Or much worse. It might also be used to shut off entire sections of the Internet. But whatever happens, Conficker has demonstrated that the Internet remains highly vulnerable to a concerted attack.
“If you’re looking for a digital Pearl Harbor, we now have the Japanese ships streaming toward us on the horizon,” Rick Wesson, the chief executive of Support Intelligence, a computer consulting firm, said recently.
The Internet’s original designers never foresaw that the academic and military research network they created would one day bear the burden of carrying all the world’s communications and commerce. There was no one central control point and its designers wanted to make it possible for every network to exchange data with every other network. Little attention was given to security. Since then, there have been immense efforts to bolt on security, to little effect.
“In many respects we are probably worse off than we were 20 years ago,” said Eugene Spafford, the executive director of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security at Purdue University and a pioneering Internet security researcher, “because all of the money has been devoted to patching the current problem rather than investing in the redesign of our infrastructure.”
In fact, many computer security researchers view the nearly two decades of efforts to patch the existing network as a Maginot Line approach to defense, a reference to France’s series of fortifications that proved ineffective during World War II. The shortcoming in focusing on such sturdy digital walls is that once they are evaded, the attacker has access to all the protected data behind them. “Hard on the outside, with a soft chewy center,” is the way many veteran computer security researchers think of such strategies.Despite a thriving global computer security industry that is projected to reach $79 billion in revenues next year, and the fact that in 2002 Microsoft itself began an intense corporatewide effort to improve the security of its software, Internet security has continued to deteriorate globally.
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