Friday, February 18, 2005

The Infectious Internet

It was not so long ago that the human population was routinely decimated by disease. We think of things like plague epidemics, smallpox epidemics and cholera epidemics with a combination of dismay ("How could it possibly have been so bad???") and relief ("Thank goodness we figured out how to eliminate most of these problems!!!").

One thing that triggered many of these problems was the rise of large cities. People had never really congregated so densely before. Once people packed themselves together tightly enough, germs found it much easier to spread from person to person. Until we figured out how germs worked and the basics of hygiene, we were at the mercy of these diseases.

Today we find ourselves in a similar kind of situation. In this case, thankfully, it is not leading to massive death. But it is creating massive frustration. The problem arises because, for the first time in human history, we are gathering together in large numbers in electronic spaces.

You can see how bad the problem is by looking at this very nice list of free software utilities:More than a third of the listed utilities are battling the many problems that arise when you innocently connect your computer to the Internet. Look at the first six items in the list:
  1. Best Free Web Browser - The article states, "There are several excellent alternatives but Mozilla FireFox is the stand-out pick. It's much safer than Internet Explorer, so safe in fact that many users have reported no spyware infections since they started using the product."
  2. Best Free Anti-Virus Software
  3. Best Free Adware/Spyware/Scumware Remover
  4. Best Free Anti-Scumware Utility
  5. Best Free Trojan Scanner/Trojan Remover
  6. Best Free Intrusion Prevention and Detection Utility
Add to this list:
  1. The scourge of spam email
  2. The need for hardware and software firewalls to keep out human and robotic hackers
  3. The whole problem with Zombie machines
You now have a pretty good picture of how bad things have gotten today. It is very, very sad.

People in 2050 will look back at this period in our history with the same sort of dismay and relief that we reserve for the Dark Ages. The grandkids will ask questions like, "With all of these different problems battering your machines, how could anyone possibly get any work done???" We will smile wryly and say, "Well, we just did the best we could..."

One of the things that is so sad about the Internet infection is that we actually have the power to eliminate it. It is similar to the traffic problem, where everything bad that we experience is under total human control. For example:
  • As mentioned, a better browser solves lots of problems.
  • Microsoft's operating system is the cause of most virus problems -- Linux and the Mac are largely free from the virus threat.
  • Strong laws and agressive enforcement can eliminate most spam.
  • ISP's can easily detect and cut off Zombie machines.
  • And so on...
What we lack is the will. We find ourselves at a weird place in history -- we are not yet at the tipping point where so many people are so fed up that we actually do something to solve the problems. Hopefully that tipping point will come soon.



At 9:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why doesn't Microsoft provide a free virus checker, a free spam filter and a free spyware eliminator, and clean up all the holes in the browser and OS? Why do they get away with this?

At 9:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good article today on yet another Microsoft-created hole: Microsoft on 'rootkits': Be afraid, be very afraid : "The researchers discussed the growing threat posed by kernel rootkits at a session at the RSA Security Conference in San Francisco this week. The malicious snooping programs are becoming more common and could soon be used to create a new generation of mass-distributed spyware and worms. "

At 9:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why not have a "Do not spam" list like the "do not call" list?

At 11:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How long do people think it will take for us to solve these problems? Do we solve spam in the next 2 years? Or does it take 5? 10? Never? Do people receive thousands of spam messages every day in 2050?

What about viruses? When do they end? Does Longhorn eliminate viruses in 2006?

What about spyware?

At 3:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another new type of virus (RAR viruses): New Virus Attack Technique Bypasses Filters

At 4:51 AM, Anonymous Bjorn v.d.M. said...

One thought:

immune system.

We do need all those email spammers, IM spammers, irc spammers, comment spammers, hackers, script kiddies, virus authors and so forth.

Otherwise (for example by eliminating those threats by laws or moral standards) we will end up with an enourmously complex system that would be very vulnerable. Three points:

a) remember the movie "Independence Day". Those aliens did have that kind of society where no virus author would ever arise. We must keep that in mind when we set off to exterminate alien worlds.

b) remember what happened to societies that weren´t able to acquire immunities to the big eurasian killer infections (mostly arising from humans living closely together with intense animal husbandry - see "Guns, Germs and Steel" by J. Diamond for reference)

c) see it this way for a moment. When some 17 year old virus author can cause (supposedly) millions or billions of dollars of damage - maybe we´re too far down the road with the weak immune system already? Maybe he shouldn´t be given a jail sentence, but money (or a college scholarship?). The longer a vulnerability goes unattacked, and thus unfixed, the greater the damage will be once it IS actually attacked. So how much money lost and damage done did the kid prevent for the future?

Just some thoughts. Björn.

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