Top 10 Tech Scares of the Decade

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The dawn of the new millennium prompted fears about the future, but so far reality has not quite matched the predictions of catastrophe. The first ten years passed uneventfully--well, aside from Y2K and a bunch of intelligent computer viruses. Here's a look back at the past decade, and ten of the most terrifying tech scares.

1. Y2K

Year: 2000

Predicted outcome: End of the world and technology as we know it

Actual outcome: Accidental alarms, slot machine failures, incorrect dates on Websites

If you were around for the turn of the millennium, you undoubtedly heard something about Y2K and its potential outcomes. Then you probably felt like it didn't live up to the hype when the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2000, and nuclear missiles didn't start automatically launching themselves.

The "millennium bug" actually could have happened at the turn of any regular ol' century--not just the millennium. The concern was valid: Many computing systems used two digits to store the year, and so the rollover from 99 to 00 could cause various logic errors (such as recognizing the New Year as 19100) that would cause the system to fail.

Luckily, technicians were aware of the issue (it was first mentioned in print as early as 1984), and made the appropriate corrections. While the fear-mongering media no doubt overhyped Y2K, it was a real problem that would have caused some large-scale issues had your trusty IT guys not been on the ball.

2. Conficker Worm

Years: 2008-2009

Predicted outcome: Not applicable

Actual outcome: An estimated 10 million home/business/government computers under its control

The Conficker worm (also known as Downup, Downadup, and Kido), first detected in 2008, was a virus that targeted Windows operating systems. The worm used advanced malware techniques to take over machines and turn them into zombie/host computers that the worm's authors could control remotely. The Conficker infection was believed to be one of the largest computer infections since 2003, and analysts have suggested that as many as 10 million machines were affected.

Conficker spread in three ways: It attacked vulnerability in the Microsoft Server service, it guessed administrator passwords, and it infected removable devices with an autorun file that executed as soon as someone plugged the device (such as a USB flash drive) into another machine. The virus was particularly notable for its ability to spread rapidly throughout business networks; home computers were less likely to be infected.

The last known variant of Conficker was effectively quashed in mid-April 2009, but the authors of the worm remain unknown. The threat was so serious that Microsoft and ICANN offered a $250,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Conficker's authors.They are still at large.


Years: 2004-2009

Predicted outcome: Not applicable

Actual outcome: The fastest-spreading e-mail worm ever

E-mail worm
In January 2004 a new e-mail worm began spreading around the Net, appearing as a transmission-error message with an attachment. If the victim ran the attachment, the worm would not only send itself out to everyone on any address book it could find but also would attach itself to any copies of Kazaa to spread via peer-to-peer networks.

The worm eventually gained the name Mydoom, courtesy of a McAfee employee who was one of the first to discover the virus.

Mydoom has resurfaced intermittently since then, and a variation on the worm was a part of the 2009 cyberattacks on South Korea. The original author of the worm has never been found, but security firms have speculated that it was commissioned by e-mail spammers and that it originated in Russia.

4. Anonymous

Year: Reported in 2007

Predicted outcome: Hackers on steroids, "The Internet Hate Machine"

Actual outcome: Porn on YouTube, DDoS attacks on Scientology

In 2007, KTTV Fox 11 News in Los Angeles ran a sensational report about a group called Anonymous. According to the KTTV report, this "Internet hate machine" was to be feared for such devastating crimes as spoiling the end of the new Harry Potter book. The report was rife with creepy, faceless pictures and lurid phrases such as "hackers on steroids" and "domestic terrorists."

Unfortunately, KTTV's fantastic report was wrong: Anonymous is not a specific group at all, just a name for any random collection of users from various online communities and IRC networks working together (rather, in the same direction) at any given time. Wired has more accurately described Anonymous as a group of "supremely bored 15-year-olds."

Crimes--Internet annoyances, really--that have been attributed to Anonymous include DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks on various Websites (including that of the Church of Scientology, and, more recently, Websites that withdrew support from WikiLeaks) and assorted cases of Internet vigilantism.

5. RFID Tracking

Years: 2002-Present

Predicted outcome: The government will be able to track your every move

Actual outcome: New passports

Radio-frequency identification, or RFID, is a technology for tracking assorted objects. RFID most commonly appears in the form of tiny chips, or "tags," which can be attached to an object for identification and monitoring; currently they're embedded in a variety of things, including passports, security passes, and store inventory. Information stored on the chip is accessible to an RFID reader, which transmits frequency waves that "wake up" the chip.

RFID technology has been heavily criticized, and it's not hard to see why: Even if manufacturers put chips in products without intending to invade people's privacy, the technology can be exploited easily. In theory, RFID tags could be used to track everything from shopping and spending habits to someone's exact location.

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