2004 Was a Rough Year for Security

Opinion: It has been a really bad year, all things considered. But we've also seen the seeds of resolution sewed for many of our worst problems.

When I look back at all the major bad security news in 2004, I wonder how the worlds computing infrastructure still manages to get up in the morning. It looks a lot worse in retrospect than it felt while it was going on.

Year of the worm

The year began with several new and successful worms, starting with Bagle. MyDoom and Netsky followed soon after. Most of these worms include a "backdoor" program allowing a remote attacker to take control of the infected system. Its generally assumed that the real purpose of these worms, as with earlier worms such as last years Sobig, is to provide a platform for spammers and other sociopaths to do their dirty work. Nevertheless, all three brought us some innovation.

Later versions of Bagle were the first not only to send their payload in a ZIP file in order to evade some blocking methods, but to password-protect the ZIP file and include the password in the body of the message. MyDoom achieved fame for its built-in distributed-denial-of-service attacks against Microsofts and SCOs Web sites. Microsoft was able to dodge the bullets, but SCO had some tough times.

Netsky was not a sophisticated worm, but it was extremely successful and began a bizarre war with the Bagle worm, in which each worm attempted to interfere with the execution of the other. Netsky was winning the battle until its author was arrested.

It wasnt the end of worm innovation in 2004. A new worm known variously as Bofra and as a MyDoom variant actually sets up a Web server on the infected system and mails out links to it to spread itself.

Spam takes over, authentication standards process begins

By most measures now spam is at least two-thirds of all mail on the Internet,, and is occasionally as high as 90 percent. At this rate, by the end of 2005 finding your real e-mail will be like panning for gold at the end of the rush.

In addition to the many great products that appeared in 2004 to help users and organizations control spam, a consensus emerged to support efforts, begun in late 2003, to fix the lax Internet e-mail standards that make spam so unstoppable. The general idea was to add authentication to the process, so that when someone sent an e-mail purporting to be from a particular address, the recipient could have some confidence that it actually came from that address.

The IETF fast-tracked a group working on such an authentication scheme. MARID (MTA Authorization Records In DNS) seemed to be marching towards a new standard, based on work from a little company named Pobox and from the somewhat larger Microsoft, when discussions collapsed in a heap of contention over Microsofts intellectual property claims to their work and technical objections to the proposal. Seeing their consensus and momentum going down the drain, the chairmen of MARID dissolved the group, leaving the authentication movement in a temporary shambles.

The groups doing real work toward a standard didnt close up shop, though. By Thanksgiving, the standard on which Microsoft and POBox had worked had actually progressed to the point where many large ISPs, including AOL, agreed to give it a try. Yahoo integrated its A separate approach called DomainKeys, which relies on cryptographic signatures, was integrated into developer Yahoos mail system and a few others, including Googles Gmail.

Next page: Phishing takes off.