Thought for the day: How do we police our PCs?

Our approach to security needs a radical rethink to protect our systems in the broadband age, argues Simon Moores.

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Our approach to security needs a radical rethink to protect our systems in the broadband age, argues Simon Moores.




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, while bored-looking police were positioned every 30 yards along the road into Victoria, where I was meeting the editor for lunch. Meanwhile, 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 moments of fame by spreading across the internet in 15 minutes, or "flash" threats that might be able to blanket the internet in as little as 30 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 expense of 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 shows that two-thirds of companies increased their spending on security this year, which now accounts for 8.2% of the total IT budget, up from 7.6% in 2002.

But its not just businesses that should be worried. In 2002, China had only 68 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% of computers in the country have been infected with a virus this year. That number is up 25% 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 US in their contacts book. So 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 Christmas, how would you protect your new PC or even your refrigerator from a determined virus or worm attack in the future?

Symantec is now identifying more than 100 new viruses every week and reported a 19% 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 boadband-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 of China 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.

What do you think?

How can we rethink security for the broadband age?  Tell us in an e-mail >> reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the website. Please state if your answer is not for publication.

Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of leading industry analyst Dr Simon Moores of Zentelligence.

Acting globally, Zentelligence (Research) advises governments, suppliers, business and the media on the evolution, application and delivery of leading-edge technologies and specialises in the areas of eGovernment and information security.

For further information on Zentelligence and its research, presentation and analyst services visit 

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