The Confounding Case of Conficker

By Matthew Hines  |  Posted 2009-04-02 Print this article Print

An interesting bird this Conficker. A botnet, a worm, a USB infection... a media darling and technological masterpiece, yet, a wraith whose true intentions have yet to have been laid bare. An April Fools' Day joke punch line undelivered.

It's been a real soap opera, right? Everyone in the security community is already completely burned out with talking about Conficker and the doomsday that wasn't yesterday. I don't want to write about it right now myself... but, as everyone also understands, what didn't happen on April 1 with Conficker is still the big story.

Other than knowing that somehow this attack piqued the interest of such a broad cross-section of the enterprise computing and IT security communities that it generated a hype cycle like few, if any, that we've previously seen in the world of malware, we still don't know what Conficker was made for, other than for asserting its advanced propagation techniques.

I honestly regretted the comparison that I made between Conficker and celebutante Paris Hilton in this space earlier this week when re-reading the post the next day.

Despite some obvious similarities in terms of the attack's inexplicable ability to capture the attention of seemingly all those who took a closer look at it, and its ambiguity in terms of its actual talents, I felt like maybe the attempted literary device came off as a little bit too cute.

However, sometimes even the foolish say something oddly prophetic.

Like Ms. Hilton's stratospheric rise to the pinnacle of popular culture several years ago, we may never fully understand how or why the particular timing and combination of factors involved with Conficker completely captivated not only the typical research community but also everyone from the DHS (though I'm guessing that they're actually always watching this kind of thing, but usually not quite so overtly) to the mainstream media.

Fueled by an avalanche of vendor-driven research papers and advisories, and the formation of the Microsoft-backed Conficker Cabal, the buzz over the malware campaign grew to such a fever pitch over the last few days and weeks that its manner of feeding on its own celebrity status truly seemed to mirror the type of activity we've seen around Ms. Hilton and some of her webutante (yeah, I just went there) peers.

By Tuesday night, a lot of people in the security community seemed to care less about what might have happened yesterday than they seemed to care about simply moving past the looming April 1 date to stop being forced to read and talk about the attack so much, regardless of what might have happened.

Of course, like myself, most of these individuals weren't the same people working all night Tuesday to ensure that their networks were rid of the infection. And it's hard to argue with the viability of a botnet that's estimated at having infected over 10 million machines.

A far more technically inclined colleague of mine who has actually spent some time wrestling with Conficker said that it was a major league pain in the ass to deal with, but he agreed that the threat was still relatively benign compared to some other historic attacks, like SQL Slammer, for instance.

And Slammer never made "60 Minutes" before its payload was even delivered.

The biggest takeaway thus far from Conficker was that organizations need to ensure that their software security patching processes are applied consistently, and thoroughly vetted, my colleague observed. That is undeniably important insight, but hardly any landmark new intelligence, we agreed.

But, again, just like Paris, maybe, just maybe, part of this Conficker phenomenon going as big as it has, might have something to do with the notion that the pop culture influence of cyber security is finally peaking, to the point where the industry's rush to wrap its arms around something like Conficker has become the sort of thing you can expect to see on your local nightly news.

The truth is that it's been getting that way for a while now; cybercrime and cybersecurity are pretty well worn news items. If that's the case, Conficker might serve as something of a dry run for how the IT community, security researchers and the media can elevate awareness of attacks, though it should also serve as a warning for how quickly the hype can spin out of control.

So, was Conficker worth all the attention, was it a dud, was its rise to fame driven more by some uncanny timing in terms of public sensitivity to malware and the security industry's sprawling critical mass... who's to say? Especially since today, April 2, or tomorrow, it could morph into something completely devastating.

Because, as sick as we may already be with Conficker, the deeper meaning of this moment in time won't be fully realized until we find out if the attack turns out to be something nasty, or merely some test of new technologies conducted by attackers who hide their real operational subnets.

Maybe it will be a big deal, maybe the general public is finally becoming more tuned into security issues.

Only time will tell.

Matt Hines has been following the IT industry for over a decade as a reporter and blogger, and has been specifically focused on the security space since 2003, including a previous stint writing for eWeek and contributing to the Security Watch blog. Hines is currently employed as marketing communications manager at Core Security Technologies, a Boston-based maker of security testing software. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of Core Security, and neither the company, nor its products and services will be actively discussed in the blog. Please send news, research or tips to |

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