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Technology Review's Briefings are primers on key emerging technologies that promise to be transformational in their impact.

Computer Security

Introduction

Over the past few years, computer attacks, once largely a nuisance issue, have become a threat to national security. Organized criminals have taken advantage of the shift toward online banking and commerce to compromise the financial identity of millions. Even worse, it's now possible for hackers to cripple government websites during a conflict, or for governments to spy on businesses. Some people even fear that cyber terrorists could use the Internet to damage critical infrastructure such as power stations (see "Moore's Outlaws"). Concrete numbers on the economic impact of security failures are hard to come by, but the FBI says that losses from cyber crimes in the United States jumped 112 percent from 2008 to 2009.

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The Big Picture Planetary Pestilence

  • By Stephen Cass

The Conficker worm was first released in November 2008 and later followed up by increasingly sophisticated variants. Targeting a vulnerability in the Microsoft Windows operating system, the worm can spread by means of networks and USB flash drives. Millions of computers were rapidly infected; this map from security firm Team Cymru shows a snapshot of detected infections in January 2009. Since then, Conficker has proved difficult to eradicate. Its resilience is due in part to its ability to disable antivirus software, block users from accessing the websites of security vendors to get new software, and download encrypted updates designed to defeat counter­measures against previous versions of Conficker. Microsoft is offering a $250,000 reward for the identities of the worm's creators.

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