William Jackson | Signs of progress

Cyberye'commentary<@VM>Sidebar'Coda: Political sites a likely target

Cybereye columnist
William Jackson

GCN

You don't find much optimism at an information technology security conference. The best you usually can muster is a grim sense of satisfaction that as long as things keep getting worse, there always will be a market for security products and expertise.

Optimism might be too strong a word for the atmosphere at the RSA Security conference earlier this month in San Francisco, but speakers did find some reasons to be upbeat. Progress toward making security a strategic rather than a tactical function of our enterprises has become visible in the past year, and there are indications that the IT industry is working to get ahead of the security curve rather than constantly playing catch-up with hackers and criminals.

This is not to say the security problem has been solved or the goal of an online world free of threats is even in sight. But maybe, just maybe, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Much of the progress cited at the conference is not groundbreaking, and not all of it has occurred in the past year. Microsoft has been working on its Trustworthy Computing Initiative for five years, and many other organizations are paying more attention to the quality of their code. Oracle has put universities on notice that it expects its new hires to be trained in producing reliable software. There is a growing emphasis on professionalism in IT security. The Defense Department is requiring its IT professionals to be certified to recognized industry standards, an idea that is gaining traction elsewhere. The Federal Desktop Core Configuration was cited as an important step toward proactive security, and federal requirements that vendors supply applications that will work with the FDCC was praised as a step that could put some teeth and backbone into the requirements.

Seven years into his presidency ' better late than never ' President Bush has announced a multimillion-dollar cyber security initiative. The details of the initiative still are unclear, but Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Assistant Secretary Greg Garcia said at the conference that the department is making cyber security a major focus. Garcia said he felt a sense of common purpose in the industry toward making security an IT enabler rather than an afterthought.

We have not shed our old problems, however. We still are producing exciting new functionality without fully considering security. One of the big topics at the conference was virtualization, a technology rapidly being adopted to consolidate and make data centers more efficient and affordable.

But running multiple guest operating systems on a common host platform creates new difficulties that existing security products cannot effectively address, and security companies once more are playing catch-up.

At the same time, our adversaries continue to become more sophisticated because the growing importance of the Internet as a vehicle of commerce has created an underground economy with billions of dollars, euros and yen at stake.

It would be foolish to think that the cat-and-mouse game of IT security will not continue full force for the foreseeable future, but maybe we are shifting the odds a little in our favor.
As the election season progresses and a thirst for instant political gratification drives more people to the Web for daily fixes, it only stands to reason that the bad guys will try to take advantage. It already is happening in Italy, where national elections are also being held.

Symantec has reported that the Web site of an Italian right-wing political party has been infected with a malicious IFrame that exploits a browser vulnerability to load a Trojan onto the victim's computer.

Italy has had more than 60 governments since World War II. We're lucky: In this country, we have a national election only every four years.

But with the Web playing an ever more important part in campaigns, high-traffic election-related sites could become prime targets for malicious code. This is a growing threat because of vulnerabilities in browser plug-ins that can result in an infection hidden on an otherwise legitimate site.

Probably the only way to fully protect yourself from this kind of threat is to avoid going online at all. If that doesn't suit you, at least keep your antivirus measures up-to-date and make sure you are using some protection on your handheld devices if you get information that way. For the time being, TV news still appears to be safe, but with the coming shift to digital broadcasting, who knows how long that will last.

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