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The Great Wall of Cardboard

The scene outside Buckingham Palace reminded me of the opening minutes of ‘Gladiator’. With the cavalry in position, all that seemed missing were the catapults and bored-looking police were positioned every thirty yards along the road into Victoria, where I was meeting the editor for lunch, while President Bush had his cooked for him by kitchen Goddess, Nigella Lawson in Downing Street.

Observing this rather extreme example of perimeter defence from a computing perspective, I couldn’t help wondering if it had its equivalent ‘single point of failure’, the kind of weakness that Symantec CEO, John Thompson alluded to in his Comdex speech, “Day zero threats”, which exploit previously unknown vulnerabilities and which can strike without warning. A new phenomenon, Warhol attacks, likely to achieve their moment of fame by spreading across the Internet in fifteen minutes or "Flash" threats that might be able to blanket the Internet in as little as thirty seconds.

The problem, you see, is that we continue to think large and layered about information security, rather like the lines of policeman, with different jobs, attempting to protect the President. We all know that in the modern world, a demonstration of force isn’t always enough to protect a target from a determined adversary and this is doubly true in the world of cyberspace. The associated with getting security wrong can be far greater than the costs of getting it right and the latest Worldwide IT Benchmark Report from the Meta Group show two-thirds of companies increased their spending on security this year, which now accounts for 8.2 per cent of the total IT budget, up from 7.6 per cent in 2002.

But its not just businesses that should be worried. In 2002, China had only sixty-eight million registered users in 2002 but the most popular Chinese language hacking programme reportedly had three million downloads inside the country. This might lead you to ask what three million Chinese are hacking and where they are hacking, particularly when they are frequently organised into large units, such as the Honker Union the China Army Union and the Green Army Corp.

A survey conducted by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security shows that approximately 85 percent of computers in the country have been infected with a virus this year. That number is up 25 percent from 2001. And as many as a third of China's computers may have been hit by the Sobig-F worm, which struck in August

Extrapolate these kind of infection rates into a Western environment“And I wonder”, I said to the editor over my linguini, “If Broadband will be the death of us”.

You see, if you have a million computers infected in one country, it is likely that a high proportion of these machines will have addresses in Europe or the United States in their address book, if whatever infects them takes advantage of the growing Broadband connectivity in our society, the type of problem described by Symantec’s John Thompson becomes more immediate, particularly as the number of Internet devices in the home or office proliferates. After all, with people rushing out to buy fully-configured Internet PCs for £500 this Xmas, how would you protect your new PC or even your refrigerator from a determined virus or worm attack in the future?

Symantec are now identifying more than one hundred new viruses every week and reported a “Nineteen per cent increase in attack activity in the first half of 2003”. My own guess is that we have yet to achieve a kind of critical mass in our emerging Broadband society, which offers a perfect environment for the replication of an infection, several magnitudes more powerful than Blaster, which like a small volcano eruption, served as a warning of the Krakatoa-type eruption to come.

Which brings us back to the question of single point of failure. Each new Broadband-connected Personal Computer represents a potential weakness in the chain and while corporate spending on security gradually rises, there is no equivalent guarantee that building the IT equivalent of ‘The Great Wall’ offers us any real answers to the problem of millions upon millions of unprotected PCs, each one a potential host for whatever new and nasty surprise is yet to come in 2004.


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