Top 10 Security Nightmares of the Decade

Today's Best Tech Deals

Picked by PCWorld's Editors

Top Deals On Great Products

Picked by Techconnect's Editors

Security nightmares
Blame the Internet for the latest decade of security lessons. Without it, you probably wouldn't even recognize the terms phishing, cybercrime, data breach, or botnet. Let's revisit the top security horrors of the past ten years, and try to remember what we learned from each.

1. Cyberwar

Michael Calce in 2008
Photo: Courtesy of the Canadian Broadcasting Company
What started out small ended up pretty big. Back in February 2000, a Canadian teenager named Mafiaboy used automated floods of incomplete Internet traffic to cause several sites--including Amazon, CNN, Dell, eBay, and Yahoo--to grind to a halt, in what is called a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack.

Michael Calce, aka Mafiaboy, pleaded guilty to 55 of 66 counts of mischief and was sentenced to eight months detention. Calce later wrote a book about his experience, entitled Mafiaboy: How I Cracked the Internet and Why It's Still Broken. Some experts say that all security threats progress through a cycle that moves from fun to profit to politics, and DDoS attacks were no different: Opportunist criminals next started using DDoS to hold various gambling sites for ransom.

In May 2007, DDoS attacks turned political, with hundreds of online Russian sympathizers blocking Estonian government Websites, all because a World War II memorial had been relocated. The attacks continued through the summer until Computer Emergency Response Teams (CERT) from various nations mitigated them. The following year, Russian organized crime targeted the government of Georgia with a DDoS attack.

While some people think the United States might not be ready for the upcoming cyberwars, experts from CERT are now advising the U.S. government on how better to protect its infrastructure based on the attacks we've seen thus far.

2. Malware Makes Strange Bedfellows

Viruses and worms have always been around, but in the summer of 2001 one aggressive worm threatened to shut down the official White House Website. Code Red, so named because the discoverer was drinking "Code Red" cola from Mountain Dew at the time, warranted an unprecedented joint press conference with the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center, the U.S. CERT, the Federal Computer Incident Response Center (FedCIRC), the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), the SANS Institute, and Microsoft.

Two years later, Microsoft again teamed with the U.S. Secret Service, the FBI, and later Interpol to offer a $250,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for SoBig, MSBlast, and other major viruses at the time.

Such public-private cooperation is rare, but it happened again in early 2009 when Conficker was poised to wreak havoc on the Internet at midnight on April 1. That didn't happen, thanks in part to a unique coalition of rival antivirus companies that collaborated with government agencies under the Conficker Working Group name. To this day, this group continues to monitor the worm. Organizations are stronger when they team up against a common enemy, and even security companies can put aside their differences for the common good.

3. MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter Attacks

At the beginning of the decade, security experts at businesses had to struggle with employees' use of instant messaging from AOL, Webmail from Yahoo, and peer-to-peer networks. These applications poked holes in corporate firewalls, opening various ports that created new vectors for malware.

The battle initally focused on server port 80; but by the end of the decade, the top concerns were Facebook, Twitter, and other Web 2.0 applications.

In 2005, a teenager authored the Samy worm on MySpace, which highlighted a central problem of Web 2.0--that user-contributed content could contain malware. Even as Facebook endured a few privacy snafus, it also had its own worm, called Koobface.

In 2009, Twitter came of age, too, attracting its own malware and highlighting the dangers of shortened URLs--with them, you can't see what's waiting on the other side. Twitter also suffered from spam...or did Guy Kawasaki really send you that porn link?

4. Organized Viruses and Organized Crime

After the Melissa virus struck in 1999, e-mail-borne viruses peaked the following year with ILOVEYOU, which clogged e-mail servers worldwide within 5 hours. (See "The World's Worst Viruses" for more about a clutch of the decade's early offenders.)

As e-mail spam filters improved to block bulk mailings, malicious coders looked elsewhere, turning to self-propagating worms like MSBlast, which exploited a flaw in Remote Procedure Call messages, and Sasser, which exploited a flaw in Internet Information Services (IIS). About this time, viruses and worms began using Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) to bypass e-mail filters so that the compromised machines could spew pharmaceutical spam to random addresses on the Net.

Shortly after Microsoft's Reward program netted Sven Jaschen, author of Netsky and Sasser, in 2004, the image of a single author creating viruses in a parents' basement fell out of favor, replaced by organized crime operations with financial ties to porn and bulk pharmaceutical companies. (In 2005, PCWorld wrote a series on the problem, "Web of Crime.") Groups such as the Russian Business Network (RBN) ran sophisticated spam campaigns, including pump-and-dump penny-stock spam.

5. Botnets

With the financial backing of organized crime syndicates came widespread and clever innovations in malware.

In 2007, the Storm worm--which began like any other virus--started talking to other Storm-compromised computers, forming a network of compromised computers all using the Overnet peer-to-peer protocol. This protocol allowed the operator to send out a spam campaign or to use the compromised computers to launch a DDoS attack.

Storm was not alone. Nugache, another virus, was building a botnet, too. And there were others. Today, botnets have spread to the Mac OS and Linux operating systems. The chances are approaching 50/50 that you might have at least one bot on one of your computers now.

1 2 Page 1
Page 1 of 2
Shop Tech Products at Amazon