Around twenty years ago, a Cornell graduate student wrote a simple software program that was intended to be a harmless prank. He wanted it to be a trivial bit of digital graffiti, but a programming error allowed the program to move from one computer on the network to another with unexpected speed, which brought the precursor to today’s Internet to a halt.
Since that prank occurred, the security of the Internet has grown much dicier. This point is reinforced and illustrated by the amount of anti-malware software that is sold each year around the world and the amount of computers and networks that are infected with viruses and other malware every day. Security on the Internet has deteriorated to the point that many engineers and security specialists now believe that the only way to fix it is to start over.
What the new Internet might resemble is still fiercely debated, but one proposed model would resemble a gated community of sorts where users trade anonymity and some freedoms in exchange for network safety. This model already exists for many users who access the ‘Net while working for some governmental and corporate entities with restricted access. As this newer and more secure Internet emerged, the network that is such a big part of many peoples’ lives might resemble a rough neighborhood where users enter at their own risk.
“Unless we’re willing to rethink today’s Internet,” says Nick McKeown, a Stanford engineer involved in building a new Internet, “we’re just waiting for a series of public catastrophes.”
The validity of this assertion is reinforced each time a new virus emerges and infects computers and networks around the world. The latest piece of malware, called Conficker, is an especially pernicious program which has infected more than 12 million computers and derailed the computer networks of the French military, a surgical ward in England and countless others. Unlike other viruses that require a user to click on an executable file of some type, Conficker can install itself via banner advertising while a user views the content on a favorite site. Most versions masquerade as a form of anti-virus software with pop-ups warning users to provide credit card numbers and other contact information to buy the ‘upgraded version’ that will remove the malware.
Believed to be linked to criminal networks in Eastern Europe, Conficker has the ability to assemble infected computers into a supercomputer called a botnet, which can be controlled by the criminals who wrote the malware. All the time, money and resources spent on security software for networks and users cannot protect Internet users because security software is in a perpetual reactive state as there is little way to prepare for how the next malicious program might penetrate defenses-in spite of the fact that $79 billion will be spent this year on computer security software to protect against last year’s viruses.
Software engineers at Stanford University claim that they are on a mission to “reinvent the Internet.” But the anonymity that current users enjoy and criminals exploit to steal and wreak havoc might become a thing of the past for most users. And ultimately, it will be the users who decide whether they are willing to trade the anonymity they currently enjoy for the safety and security of a new Internet.
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