Malware and Web 2.0

For most of us, the Sober worm of 2003 is history. Painful history maybe, but history nonetheless. We’ve updated our virus scanners, checked and re-checked our firewalls, installed all the patches, etc. But just as in the biological world, mutations eventually make their presence known:

A variant of Sober known as Win32/Sober.Z@mm is pummeling servers at Hotmail and MSN with “unusually high mail load,” causing delays in e-mail delivery to Hotmail and MSN customers, said Brooke Richardson, MSN’s lead product manager. Richardson also indicated that Internet service providers besides Comcast may be having problems directing e-mail to Hotmail and MSN servers.

So in a way, Sober has returned, and it’s affecting MSN and Hotmail (though I personally haven’t noticed any problems). I think the return of the Sober worm has greater importance this time around though. When Sober wreaked havoc on servers in 2003, Web 2.0 (which I use in this post regardless of how accurate the term is) was but a glimmer in the future. Hosted services were still considered unready to take off. Now though, Web 2.0 is all the rage and hosted services are popping up everywhere.

So what happens in a few years when the vast majority of our data is stored online? Creating some sort of malicious software to target those data silos will become increasingly irresistable for those who write viruses, worms and the like. And that introduces a pretty big problem for users, and for those running the hosted services.

In a few years, all of my pictures will be on Flickr or something similar (in fact most of them already are). Many of my thoughts are online already on this blog (and millions of people use a central service like LiveJournal, MSN Spaces, Blogger, etc). Podcasts, video, documents and even more types of information will undoubtedly go online as the services become feasible and popular (and who knows what Windows Live and Office Live will mean). Combined with the data of millions of other people, this storage of my data is firstly a very juicy target, and secondly increasingly difficult to protect. All of that data needs to be proactively protected from attacks, it needs to be backed up in case of a successful attempt, and it really should be available all the time. And when the demand for sharing this information and data with other services on the rise (think APIs in the Web 2.0 world) security becomes somewhat more difficult.

Combined with the “mini bubble” we’re starting to see, in which corners will inevitably be cut in order to get products and services to market, I think malware will become increasingly more important. No longer will viruses and worms simply target websites, they will target our data. And don’t be fooled – a virus targeting the data on your local machine and distributed malware targeting the data of millions of users are two very different scenarios. If you lose the data on your local machine, you’re faced with a setback and the need to rebuild and move on. If the data of millions of users is made inaccessible, destroyed, or otherwise attacked, the people who own the data are affected, but so are countless businesses that rely on that data. It’s potentially much worse.

Granted, distributed technologies that are becoming more and more commonplace will help to alleviate some of the problems posed by malware of the future, but they can’t completely prevent outages or other negative effects. True also is the fact that platforms in general have matured and are more secure than in the past. However, the potential for major problems still exists.

Today, malware might make a website unavailable. Tomorrow, malware might make you (or at least the most important data which describes you) unavailable. Let’s hope those in the driver’s seat of the Web 2.0 era are considering security too, or we could be in for a very rough ride.

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