Electronic Design

Seeking Out Cyber Security

In this column a few weeks ago, I highlighted what I thought was the lackadaisical approach by the British government regarding the security of its internal computer systems. A well-known virus managed to penetrate the government’s computers, even though plenty of software solutions exist to prevent such an IT incursion.

But to be fair, it’s my thinking that the UK government is far from being the worst when it comes to IT security. That’s not to say it’s the best, however. In fact, my guess a few weeks ago would have been to put the USA close to the top of the national security league, given its stance on homeland security since the World Trade Centre atrocities.

So it came as a real surprise to hear that spies managed to hack into a highly secret fighter aircraft project currently progressing in the US. Security analysts warned the US government that its cyber security needs some serious improvement.

America is addressing this problem by establishing special departments with substantial budgets to rapidly investigate and identify software solutions. This department will consult with software specialists to get a gauge on possible options.

An interesting aspect to all of this, though, is that governments are more frequently turning to the big players in IT and communications software for help. This is a pity, since there are a number of small innovative companies creating some very smart, but virtually unheard of, security systems. National procurement procedures and the people that manage them may have to change direction.

Now, all this is easy to say. But finding ways to eradicate these latest viruses is extremely difficult.

Take a look at Nimda, the multivector virus. Like most viruses, it can infect via email by seeking out vulnerable servers on the Internet and uploading its files to them. What’s new about that you ask? The difference is Nimda is the first worm that can infect other files by shoving its code into .EXE files. Like most viruses, its preferred nesting site is within Windows-based systems.

Simply put, this virus zaps its way around the Internet searching for vulnerable servers at such a prodigious rate it can cause the equivalent of data traffic jams. Everyone who’s infected with Nimda participates in this increased traffic, with their compromised systems seeking other systems to compromise. And so the viral snowball keeps rolling.

There’s no denying that cyber security is a massive problem facing governments worldwide. To put it in further perspective, the strike fighter aircraft project wasn’t the only one recently infiltrated in the US. Rumour has it that an external organisation managed to worm its way into one of the US power-grid control centres. The national security implications of that are scarily obvious.

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