Is computer crime a fundamentally new phenomenon, a new approach to the work, much like Islamic terrorism? And are we defending ourselves using the obsolete tools and the attitudes of another age?
As you no doubt know, this week saw the latest attack on the world's computers by a virulent and fast-moving virus. It has crashed Microsoft 2000-based computers in the United States, Germany and large portions of Asia. Particularly hard hit have been many of the big Mainstream Media institutions in the U.S., including CNN, ABC and the New York Times, as well as Caterpillar tractor, and some non-critical machines at San Francisco Airport and a few offices on Capitol Hill.
This bug appears to be of the "worm" type, likely related to the Zotob worm first discovered and announced last weekend (which itself seems to be a variant of the new "worm-rbot.cbq" worm). This type of virus, according to Johannes Ullrich of the Florida network security firm Sans Institute, "will connect to a control server to ask for instructions. It scans network neighborhoods and tries to infect them as well."
Microsoft has already announced a patch for this worm, but an attempt to open the Web page Wednesday morning resulted in failure. Nevertheless, thanks to its new automatic security update service, Microsoft estimates that 200 million PCs around the world have already downloaded the patch.
It remains to be seen whether this new worm will do as much damage as last year's Sasser worm, which crashed millions of computers worldwide. New protections and stronger firewalls may limit the damage this time … but as we all have learned over the years, every new advance in computer security is merely a challenge to hackers to figure out how to breach it.
That brings me back to the two questions that began this column. Increasingly, I am struck that there are distinct parallels between hackers and terrorists. Both are essentially powerless people who believe that they are superior to everyone else. And both are furious that, for some inexplicable reason, history has turned against them and showered its favors on the suits/infidels. The only answer, then -- one that will punish the nonbelievers and reward the Illuminati with fame (or notoriety) and power -- is to destroy the greatest institutions of those history has favored. Only then will the unbelievers (and the insufficiently committed) appreciate just how superior the Illuminati really are.
But, since those favored by history have the money, the people, the institutions and the tools, the only way for the powerless to fight is by being the antithesis of their enemy: unstructured, unpredictable, operating in violation of accepted rules of engagement, targeting noncombatants, never meeting the enemy face to face.
As we now know, one of the unpredictable advantages of such a strategy is that the established, comfortable enemy takes a very long time to even see the nature of the threat, to try to assert rational principles on what are, in fact, irrational acts. We probably would have put up with acts by al Qaeda, like the Nairobi embassy bombing or the attack on the USS Cole, almost forever as long as they were long enough apart, far enough away, and killed few enough people.