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Let’s Hear it for the Boys

I’ve been wearily casting my eye back on the security news of the last seven days.

There’s SQL-Slammer of course, the biggest kick in the collective complacency since Code Red which was cleverly timed to coincide with the birthday of Microsoft’s ‘Trustworthy Computing’(TWC) initiative and the bubbling ‘Gatesian’ eulogy that accompanied it.

Of course, ‘Slammer’ took advantage of a much older deficiency that Microsoft had patched in July but reports suggest that at least a quarter of a million Servers were involved in the DDOS exploit and apparently, 13,000 Bank of America ATM machines were among the victims.

In fact, it’s been a week of and I’ll say it, ‘piss poor’ examples of IT security everywhere you might look. We can only be thankful that Ozzie Bin Laden and his boys appear to prefer the more dramatic sound of loud bangs to the apparently much simpler destruction of bits and bytes on which our society is really built.

I’ve had a preview of the most comprehensive figures yet for 2002 and I can tell you we are increasingly looking like an industry on the brink of crisis, not simply because of the deficiencies of Microsoft or the Penguin but because however hard the vendors or the authorities try, there’s a good 30% - 40% of the Web administrator population that can’t be bothered to keep their Servers patched and up-to-date. But Bank of America – I ask you?

One of my friends is so depressed by society’s lack of serious attention to the problem that he’s decided to emigrate to New Zealand and become a sheep and I can’t blame him either. The irony is that the people who read this column are most likely to be among the group, that are least likely to be the victims or the next generation of blended threats which we are warned are just around the corner. The problem however, is that the Internet’s very connectivity represents its greatest weakness where programs like Slammer or Nimda are concerned, the force multiplication effect of tens of thousands of infected Servers as part of a single Denial-of- Service exploit.

It seems very clear to me that we are steadily losing the war in cyberspace and that education isn’t working. But what’s the alternative, shooting failing Server administrators might, at first glance, be an attractive option but is unlikely to solve the deeper problem of apathy which is responsible for the mess in which we find ourselves today.

The harsh reality facing us is that before it gets any better, it gets worse. We can’t depend on education and we have to depend on the vendors to deliver a new generation of software, code which is bullet-proof. This then has to work its way down through the food chain, a process which will take at least five years if not ten. And even then, there’s bound to be someone in a position of strategic responsibility whose password will be ‘administrator’.


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