Cyber Defense: Rough Waters Ahead

The White House hosted an anti-botnet summit this week to discuss ways to fight the ever-growing worldwide threat posed by millions of malware-infected computers.

Botnets are dangerous because they can respond to remote commands to attack and shut down vital online activities of businesses, banks, and even government agencies; all without the participation and knowledge of those who own the infected computers. When given a remote command; those devices can act in concert with millions of other zombie machines, wreaking havoc through denial of service attacks.

White House Cybersecurity Coordinator Howard Schmidt, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowoski met with members of the Online Trust Alliance (OTA). The OTA is a non-profit organization with members from both the public and private sectors, which is dedicated to coming up with effective policies and strategies to protect electronic ecosystem.

In a press release, OTA Executive Director and President Craig Spiezle said “We have a shared responsibility to commit resources to address the growing threats from botnets, which threaten to undermine the digital economy.”

OTA has published several recommendations to curb the spread and damage from botnets. They include email authentication to aid in the detection of botnet-laden emails, browser upgrades and application auto-updating, server security, and security measures to help block malware spread through advertising and interactive marketing, known as “malvertising”.

The meeting came just one day after news reports surfaced about what’s being called the most dangerous and complex malware ever discovered; a computer virus called ‘Flame“. Flame allows remote attackers to steal information, take screen shots, wipe hard drives, and disconnect computers from networks. Evidence so far suggests that it has been operating in the Middle East and Europe for several years, and it is suspected that it may have been unleashed by a well-funded, highly sophisticated organization–possibly even a government.

It came to light when Iran revealed the virus had been used to attack oil field operations, and the United Nations is planning to issue a warning that it could be used to attack vital infrastructure in other nations.

So far though; there are no reports of it popping up here in the West. But, of course that could change, and the extreme complexity of the infected code, and the ultra-stealthy way in which it operates, has got cyber-defenders such as anti-virus software makers Symantec, and Kaspersky Labs , scrambling.

Add that to reports this week about Chinese computer chips used in US military devices that have been discovered to have built-in “back doors” that could enable remote attackers to seize control, and you have a very serious situation indeed.

So here’s my question; how is it that all the smart people in Washington, Seattle, Silicon Valley, and elsewhere in the US didn’t consider that  maybe it was a really bad idea to farm out American jobs to countries where they make all the computer equipment we now need to run just about every aspect of our lives?

How is it that they thought it was OK to send really sensitive work to places where well–let’s face it-they don’t really like us all that much?

The folks in Troy figured it out a long time ago. Build a cool looking contraption, put a band of marauders inside, give it to your enemies, and then watch the dumb-**** drag it inside the gates.

And that’s just what we did.

Who’s to blame? Well, maybe we can blame the politicians who passed NAFTA , which enabled the massive globalization of commerce, and the outsourcing of millions of American jobs. Or, maybe it was former President Bill Clinton, Apple founder Steve Jobs, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and any one of the many captains of industry who sold American workers down the river over the past 30 years in order to rake in unprecedented barrels of cash.

Or maybe–just maybe–it was us.

Of course most of us have nothing to do with big time politics, global commerce, and the operation of gargantuan companies that control the fate of millions. But, we all bought into the dream, we all bought into the shiny-new-whiz-bang-can-you-believe-how-cool-it-is technology; and now we’re all reaping the whirlwind of destruction that comes from ill-considered choices, and reliance on devices we can neither adequately understand or control.

So, now it’s up to the OTA, FCC, FBI, DHS, ICE, and other alphabet soup agencies to  make our cyber world a safer place to live, work, and play. It’s just that when you start relying on the government to clean up your mess; you may find–as privacy activists found recently when the House passed the CISPA cybersecurity bill–that the mess doesn’t  always actually go away.

Sometimes it just gets messier and more confusing, which may be why the Senate hasn’t taken any action on the measure yet. The waters are muddy, and in the meantime; cyber-criminals from all over the globe are stealing our secrets, our money, our identities, and quite possibly; even our futures.

For our part, we can at least stay informed and practice basic safe computing. Cybersecurity experts say that 80 percent of the malware problems consumers face today could be avoided if they’d just use anti-virus software.

Worried about the cost? Some internet service providers (ISP’s), such as Comcast and Verizon are providing it as part of their service. Call yours today and get protected.

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