Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Exposing the Soft Underbelly of Cyber Security

Once upon a time there was a computer and electronic communication market that was dominated by Microsoft. The Apple Mac was an obscure specialty item, a computer for people who liked foreign films and lived on the coasts. It was of little concern to the erstwhile computer hacker out there trying to inflict maximum damage to the computer user community as a whole.

As a result over they years, Apple has earned a reputation as being a safe computer to use. Consequently many Apple users employ almost nothing in the way of security or anti-virus software. And that's a problem. Because as Bob Dylan once said, "the times they are a changing."

The advent of the iPhone and the iPad has turned Apple into a major player. A very major player at that! On the current market, Apple is worth more than Microsoft. And just as iPads and iPhones have become the most sought after electronic accessories of the last couple years, Apple Computers have also taken a dent out of the PC market share. All of this has got hackers taking notice.

In World War II the British thought by invading Italy the could penetrate the "soft underbelly of Europe," on their way to taking back the continent from the fascists. They were wrong. However today hackers could very correctly identify Apple Computers as the soft underbelly of cyber security.

Most Mac and Apple users remain blissfully unaware of what could be and probably already is, a gathering security threat. But can you blame them? After all, Apple makes no mention of security whatsoever on the websites for either the iPad or the iPhone.

Ironically it is Apple's recent successes that have made its user base vulnerable. The company now seems to find itself facing the difficult choice of either educating its customers and initiating steps to combat increased security threats, or doing nothing but sitting back and resting on its disappearing myth of invulnerability to cyber attacks. In other words, ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away.

There has already been one high profile iPad hack this summer. Certainly more are on the way. If Apple wants to prevent any serious outbreaks of malware and adware infections from affecting their users, it would be wise to act sooner rather than later. Because in today's hyper-security conscious computer world, it's fair to consider the Mac a soft target.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The DDoS Attacks: Lightning Strikes Twice

Last year on the 7th of July, South Korea and the United States both fell victim to a massive, widespread cyber-attack. While the U.S. has still reached no definite conclusions, South Korea's intelligence chief claims the attack was launched by the North Korean ministry of telecommunications.

On July 7th this year, the distributed denial-of-service attacks, also known as the DDoS attacks, repeated themselves. However this time, the attacks took place on a far more limited scale. While last years attacks seized control of and mobilized some 270,000 computers, this years attack only affected 462 computers.

It seems several of the computers that were involved in last years' attacks were still infected with the virus and this had lead to an outbreak, although albeit a much more limited one. Apparently the germs of a computer virus can linger, just as the germs from a human infection can.

Thankfully this year's outbreak did little actual damage even though some of the websites that were effected included South Korea's presidential Blue House and foreign ministry. Last year's attacks shut down 25 websites for 11 hours. Only 11 of those sites were in South Korea the other 14 were in the U.S. Some of the websites affected in that attack belonged to agencies of the U.S. government. This years outbreak of the attack was confined to South Korea.

Authorities there are instructing Internet service providers to encourage customers using infected computers to to erase the virus. Just like a human contagion, viruses of this nature must be contained in order to be eradicated.

Whether or not the North Koreans are behind it or not is a matter of debate. The most recent reports indicate that the DDoS attacks can be traced back to hackers in China.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Halting the Spread of Malware

In some areas of the country, it appears there might there be a need for educational outreach programs on the merits of antiviral software and security firewalls. While major, more metropolitan cities like LA, and NYC have an overall higher rate of malware infections, there is actually a much higher per capita rate in smaller, regional cities.

A map that was recently put out by the Enigma Software Group showing density of malware infection rates has revealed that Atlanta has the highest per-capita of malware infections in the United States. New York City and Los Angeles, perhaps unsurprisingly, had the most incidents of malware infections, but Atlanta trumps the Big Apple and the Big Orange when infections are factored in based on a city's population percentage.

Other cities in the top 5 on a per capita basis included Birmingham, Denver, Chesapeake and Madison. NYC and LA, when scored on a per capita basis, actually finish near the bottom of the list.

There's a tricky parable in here somewhere and I'm trying to tread lightly. This could imply, I suppose, that computers in Atlanta are having a lot more unprotected interactions with one another than in other parts of the country. Perhaps the cities with higher malware infection rates are places where education and preventative measures are not as widespread as they are in more metropolitan area.

Does this call for a public education program in cities where malware is epidemic? Billboards could be put up, encouraging the use of antiviral software and mandatory screening for adware. Parents, perhaps need to have sit down discussions with their teenagers telling them about the importance of not opening strange emails. Certainly if measures are taken, the malware epidemic can be halted.

Okay, I'm making light of it but in fact malware is a serious problem that costs consumers and businesses millions of dollars. It can invade your privacy in any number of big and small ways and like a communicable disease, can be easily spread from one computer to another. So maybe more awareness of the potential threat isn't a bad idea.

On the other side of the spectrum from Atlanta is Jersey City, NJ which can be proud that it has the lowest per capita infection rate of computer malware in the U.S.

Is there really a reason why one city suffers a greater rate of malware than another? According to Alvin Estevez, CEO of the Enigma Software Group, there may be. Estevez says that, "Any time you have a city with high Internet connectivity and a large population of younger people, the Internet traffic is higher and so is the risk for malware infections."

Again, there is a distinctly obvious parable here, but I tread lightly, lightly. . .

What is there to say except, parents, encourage your kids to take precautions. Malware can infect anyone and just because a computer doesn't look like it's infected doesn't mean it isn't.

Lightly, I tread lightly. . .

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Digitizing the World Cup

In the last installment of Computers As Humans I described the Dutch and German World Cup teams as being the Mac and PC of European soccer respectively. I then explained how both of them faced formidable obstacles, namely Brazil and Argentina, on the way to the ultimate Mac vs. PC World Cup Final.

Since then Holland have spectacularly surprised everyone, even themselves to some degree, by beating Brazil and advancing to the semi-final. Apparently we here at Computers At Humans are not the only ones who are excited.

Reuters reported today that Twitter was to be banned during ongoing cabinet formation talks in the Dutch parliament. Apparently Dutch politicians have become overly fond of using the social networking site during the difficult negotiations. Cabinet advisor Uri Rosenthal told a press conference that while the talks are taking place, "We will hold radio silence, TV silence - and we coin the word 'de-twitter' as well."

Whether or not they were actually Tweeting about Holland's World Cup results is of course unknown. But in a country that is more obsessed with soccer than even ice skating, you can bet they were. They did just beat Brazil after all.

Germany, the PC in my little parable, have also advanced. Not only that but they've done so in style with a sound thrashing of Argentina that highlighted their PC like organization and business-like efficiency.

But obstacles still remain on the road to the Mac vs. PC World Cup Final, namely Uruguay and Spain. Right now Uruguay are running like a modest, mid-market laptop that's been optimized to outperform expectations. Spain on the other hand are like an expensive, top-of-the-line desktop computer with all the extras, that has for some unknown reason, been running a little slow of late.

If the Brazilian and Argentinian team were compared to computers at this point you'd have to say they both look as if they need their central processing units replaced. The components they have are all of excellent quality and everything looked as if it was in place to work. But in the end it seemed as if the data just wasn't being distributed well.

Actually Brazil have more or less already taken a step toward replacing their central processing unit. They've removed the old one at least. Upon his return from the World Cup their coach, Dunga was immediately sacked. No replacement has yet been announced, but hopefully they'll go with someone who has qualities that are a bit more dual-core.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Mac and PC in the World Cup

A few short weeks ago 32 national teams embarked on a World Cup odyssey that has seen all but eight of them fall by the wayside. Of the eight remaining teams, a handful are the arch-rivals of one another. Depending on the results of the quarter finals we could be seeing one of several alternate pairings of these rivals meeting up in the semis. The most notable match ups we could witness in the final rounds of this summers tournament are, Holland versus Germany, and Brazil versus Argentina.

The Dutch and the Germans have an old rivalry that could quite easily be cast as the Mac vs. PC of European soccer.

Their most celebrated clash was the final of the 1974 World Cup when Germany, the host nation, defeated the heavily favored Dutch 2-1. The Dutch, who at that point hadn't forgiven the Germans for the war, added this defeat to their long list of slights and a bitter rivalry has ensued ever since. It is a rivalry that historically has pitted the creative, inventive Dutch up against the pragmatic, practical Germans. The results have often been spectacular, although the matches have often been contentious to say the least.

In the past it's been very easy to see the Netherlands as the Apple Mac of the European game. With their brilliant orange uniforms, creative passing and artistic players, they play a connoisseur's brand of soccer. In 1974 they were as unique and innovative as anything the world had ever seen. Lead by the brilliant Johan Cruyff, the Dutch dazzled their way past Argentina and Brazil to meet the Germans in the final.

The Germans, the PC of this parable, play much as you'd expect Germans would. They have an organized defense, they tackle hard, launch lightning quick counterattacks and have a ruthless determination to keep fighting until the final whistle blows. It may not be stylish or cool like the Dutch, but like a PC, it's effective when it comes to getting the job done.

But whether or not the Dutch really still play like a Mac and the Germans game really still resembles a PC is highly debatable. The Germans have branched out into a more adventurous, attacking, free-flowing mode. You could almost consider the present German team the Windows XP of German soccer.

The current Dutch side on the other hand are perhaps like a Mac that has been retooled and marketed for business purposes. They have advanced by playing a fairly pragmatic game that has many of their own fans criticizing them, despite their being undefeated in the tournament. But while they may play practically and sensibly, beneath the surface you can sense they are still as eccentric and esoteric as they ever were

Of course, whether or not we will get to see a rematch of these two great stylistic rivals remains to be seen. Both sides face formidable obstacles on their way to the next round. The Netherlands face Brazil on Friday while Germany take on Brazil's great rivals, Argentina the very next day.

Having all these giants of the game knocking each other out could open up a path for Spain to breeze through to the final. The current Spain side are in possession of an attractive, flowing, passing, attacking game that would bring a tear to Johan Cruyff's eye. They also have a highly organized defense and a fair dose of pragmatism and practicality spread throughout their team.

Now if only someone would market a computer that had all the qualities of the current Spanish team! A computer like that could potentially leave Mac and PC both in the dust.