Arik Hesseldahl

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How Scary Was the Internet in 2011?

With 2011 in the books, I thought it would be interesting to revisit some predictions I made last year on the subject of computer security. In “2010 Was the Year the Internet Got Scary. Get Used to It.” I looked at a string of events on the computer security landscape during the prior year and thought about what they meant for the year ahead.

I wrote then:

“The unvarnished fact is that the networked society to which we’ve become accustomed in the last several years has a soft, vulnerable underbelly.

And the more we rely upon it, the more people with a combination of advanced technical skills and repugnant motivations are going to look for ways to turn it against us.

Some will do so as a means of making a personal profit. Others may see it as a way of advancing a political or ideological agenda.

But others will want to use theirs skills to do serious harm to innocent people on a large scale.”

Part of these predictions or ruminations or whatever you care to call them makes me think of the hijinks of the group that started out in the spring variously known as LulzSec, Anonymous and later adopted the moniker AntiSec. This loosely affiliated group emerged from the wake of the various attacks against Sony, and seemed to have nothing to prove but that it could make mincemeat out of whatever security measures had been put in place by Sony or whatever video game outfit it had targeted on a given day.

Sony’s Playstation Network was a favorite target, and its service was at least partially offline during two months ended in July.

Then, as summer dawned, the group’s members became aware of global politics and teamed up with Anonymous, the Wikileaks-allied band of hackers known for their campaigns of digital civil disobedience. Together they declared “immediate and unremitting war” on governments and corporations, and said their top priority would be to steal and leak any classified government information, including but not limited to email and documentation. They attacked an Arizona police agency as a way of making a statement against anti-immigrant laws in that state, and published the names and home addresses of several officers.

Later they sought to earn some street cred by stealing “secret” documents from NATO, only to learn after the fact that the documents they released had not only been released before, but weren’t even really all that secret to begin with. It wasn’t long before alleged members of the group started showing up in handcuffs, which seemed not to faze them. The prospect of body bags and real-world violence during a confrontation with Mexican drug cartels, however, did.

Yet for all the headlines they garnered and the headaches they caused, the LulzSec/Anonymous/AntiSec gang wasn’t anywhere near the scariest thing to appear on the computer security landscape in 2011. To my mind, one of the top three scariest things was the disclosure of Operation Shady RAT, which Intel-unit McAfee said appeared to be the biggest large-scale compromise ever, affecting 72 organizations and governments around the world, including the U.S., Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea, Canada and India — some of them dating back as far as 2006. McAfee said the attacker was a “state actor,” though it declined to name it. The candidate highest on the short list was, naturally, China.

The second truly scary incident was the attack carried out against RSA Security, a unit of the IT company EMC, the maker of the popular SecurID tokens that so many people have on their keychains and use to create an added layer of security that goes beyond the password. Months later, the U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin was attacked with duplicate SecurID tokens.

Finally, the Stuxnet Trojan (used by parties officially unknown, but probably Israel with a little help from the U.S.) continued to fascinate and confound security researchers in 2011. Having caused nuclear centrifuges in Iran to explode in an attempt to set back that country’s nuclear weapons research program, Stuxnet was found to have a sibling called Duqu. Unlike Stuxnet, which messed with industrial control computers and made them do things they wouldn’t normally do, Duqu’s mission was much simpler: Steal everything in sight.

And after that, it was discovered by researchers at Kaspersky labs that Stuxnet and Duqu are part of an even bigger family, with at least three more siblings still undetected by researchers, and that all five were created by the same people and with the same tools. Chances are we’ll see at least a few of those final three in 2012, particularly as tension with Iran heats up.

So while there was much to consider scary happening on the Internet in 2011, I’m grateful for being wrong on one key prediction: That we didn’t see a significant computer attack used to physically harm innocent people on a large scale. That’s one prediction I hope to miss for years to come.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus