The consensus among security professionals is solid: 2003 was a lousy year for computer security. And the news wont be much better in the year ahead; things are trending for the worse.
While its easy to focus on the security screw-ups of 2003—since there are so many more of them—Ill also try to dredge up some good news. And here they are, the good things that happened in computer security in 2003:
- Despite all the security mishaps of 2003, the overwhelming evidence shows that if youre informed and diligent you can keep your systems relatively safe from attack. Try to get all the information you can, from here at eWEEK.coms Security Center, as well as from commercial, high-end offerings such as Symantecs DeepSight Alert and Threat Management Services.
In addition, implement patch management, aggressively block services at the firewall and use intrusion detection where services are open. The bad guys can still get to you, but it will be hard.
- Since its clear that most users dont apply patches even when they are heavily publicized as being critical, Microsoft began to move towards the default download and installation of security patches. There are problems with this of course, but there are bigger problems with not doing it. This alone should, over some time, improve overall security on the Internet.
- Microsoft recently began to withdraw support for and sale of Windows NT4 and Windows 98 (and many other obsolete products. Many of these products are more difficult to fix than current software or have problems which cant be fixed, such as Outlook 97.
- My best, or at least favorite, security column of the year warned of the dangers of collaboration between the FBI and anonymous computer criminals. In the long term, we can seriously curb this sort of abuse if people are aware of it. So be aware.
- Shortly after I made the suggestion that Microsoft consolidate its security updates for Windows and you shouted in agreement, the company announced that it would ship update CDs,, thus saving dial-up users from a long, torturous and mandatory process.
- Microsoft recently announced updates to Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 that will greatly enhance their security. The bad news: You wont see them until well into 2004.
Next page: And now for the bad news …
: And now for the bad news …”>
So few good tidings. Sadly, the bad news in 2003 weighed more heavily:
- This inning starts off with a triple for Microsoft: Three significant, remotely-exploitable vulnerabilities. Windows isnt the only operating system with security problems, but two of these problems were (or at least they should be considered as) the most urgent and dangerous problems in widely-deployed software. One hopes Microsoft is as disappointed in themselves for these problems as we are with them.
- The DCOM RPC buffer overflow vulnerability that led to the Blaster worm.
January 2003 brought us the Slammer worm. The Slammer worm, utilizing an innovative UDP broadcast mechanism, set a world record for speed of deployment that will be broken about as easily as Cal Ripkens consecutive game record.
But as sloppy as the bug itself was, Microsoft noted its seriousness and issued a patch six months before the exploit developed. Administrators who were “too busy” to apply a patch are the ones who really laid the egg here.
- Another buffer overflow, this one in the Windows Workstation Service, was revealed and patched early November. As yet, no exploit of significance has emerged, but this vulnerability looks too fat and juicy for the mal-coding community to pass up.
- Thanks to worms like Sobig.F, there are now large numbers of systems on the Internet operating as “open proxies,” meaning that they are available for spammers to use for sending mail, unbeknownst to their owners.
According to MessageLabs, more than 50 percent of all Internet mail is now spam and more than two-thirds of all spam is now sent through such open proxies. So solving the spam problem will probably mean also solving the worm problem. Since the worm problem is largely attributable to uneducated users engaging in dangerous practices, the outlook is bleak.
- Microsofts buggy MS03-048 Cumulative Security Update for Internet Explorer in early November made the scrollbar in Internet Explorer unbearably dysfunctional. They still havent fixed the so-called fix.
- For some, 2003 was the year that Phishers got hooked on worms. Worms were bad enough in the past year and phishing was serious enough on its own, but now the scammers are using worms to propagate their attacks. Just what we needed.
- In what was for the most part a scam itself, the Word-of-Mouth.Org site combined a veiled threat of extortion with viral marketing. However, the site appears to be out of business now; perhaps there should be a corresponding entry for its demise in my list of good things.
- Hats back on for the average user who continued to launch attachments that accompanied e-mail messages from strangers. These messages had contents that any child would have considered suspicious.
As I mentioned with respect to the phishing worm problem above, some of the most important attacks in 2003 required that the user launch an attachment, something that everyone should by now know not to do.
In some cases, users had to open up a ZIP file, extract the contents and launch them, and still plenty of people did it. Perhaps I should have more patience with the common user, but I just cant.
- Although based in good intentions, Microsoft sent a mailing out about a security patch that violated many of they companys own security rules. Officials later apologized and we havent heard of any similar incidents since.
- Microsoft proved in the past that companies can do Digital Rights Management for software and get it right. In 2003, however, Intuit and Symantec proved that they could do it wrong. TurboTax users had frequent problems with the DRM Intuit instituted and the company eventually apologized to users and ended the activation scheme. Problems with Symantecs DRM in their 2004 line of products also drew criticism from many sources.
Perhaps Im a sucker, my long-term optimism is growing for many of these problems. In the future, perhaps not quite 2004, we can expect a lot more good news. On the other hand, spam is one exception: expect more bad news there next year.
Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.
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