Toward a More Secure 2003

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The challenges to info-tech security will surely be daunting, and
companies’ efforts to stay safe will have to keep increasing

With holiday cookies and sweets still being shared around offices
everywhere, security is the least of concerns these days as most
businesses are thinking merry, not wary. So what better time to
examine the year ahead for what to expect in terms of computer
security? First, 2003 will surely pose some pretty daunting challenges
to chief security officers and the organizations they protect. At the
same time, improvements in software and technology will elevate
computer security to another level. Here’s a quick rundown of what to

Spam becomes an even bigger headache

According to e-mail security-service provider Message Labs, spam’s
growth rate will continue be faster than that of legitimate e-mail —
and in terms of sheer volume, spam will eclipse the legit stuff. That
will make the spam torrent more burdensome and harder to control.
Companies that haven’t invested in antispam software will need to do
so, pronto, or have their employees waste more and more time simply
hitting the delete key.

Part of the bargain will be businesses accepting the fact that some
messages will get tossed out with the trash, as antispam programs are
hardly perfect. Still, it’s better than being up to your eyeballs in
smutty missives and come-ons for investment scams from randomly
generated e-mail addresses.

Instant messaging succumbs to spam, too

Once a relative haven, instant messaging has recently become a target
for spammers seeking new outlets. According to e-mail consultancy
Ferris Research, IM spammers works off lists of addresses freely
traded on the Internet. They usually send a message to someone on live
IM asking them to visit a Web site that sells smut, bogus software, or
often legitimate products being marketed in unfortunate ways.

Since no IM spam-screening software is yet available, an IM user on
the wrong list could spend a good chunk of time refusing invitations
from IM spammers. That coverage hole will force many corporations to
consider moving their IM users onto private messaging systems not
accesssible to the public Internet.

Hardware, hardware, hardware

Security isn’t shrink-wrapped anymore. Eighty percent of the licenses
for expensive, high-grade firewall programs come on specially
configured pieces of hardware designed to run this software. That’s
way up from a few years ago. And its only the start.

From virtual-private-network servers to intrusion-detection systems to
newer pieces of software designed to spot behaviorial aberations that
point to a security breach, more and more products are moving from a
piece of self-contained software that an IT consultant or your own
systems administrator installs to a specialized piece of equipment
built with security in mind. The upside? These systems are generally
easier and cheaper to install and launch in a network. The downside?
Less flexibility for companies with special software needs.

Safe computing outside the corporate perimeter Employees logging into
corporate networks from home PCs over public broadband connections are
now commonplace. As a result, security software and hardware that once
did a fine job of guarding sensitive systems looks increasingly
vulnerable. That’s because all these remote networkers, be they
employees or partners, are no longer snuggly inside the “official”
data-security perimeter.

Also, persistant worm-virus outbreaks, such as Nimda, explain why more
and more corporations are going through the considerable hassle of
putting security software — firewall, intrusion detection systems,
antivirus software — on every desktop machine. Companies with
end-to-end protection remain in the minority, but they won’t be for
long as it becomes easier to link up fleets of desktops with central
control consoles that not only talk to the big, heavy-duty security
appliances but also to the thousands of small programs guarding the
road warriors’ machines.

Identity theft goes berserk online

Call in the copycats. When well-organized ID thieves convinced a clerk
at a Long Island (N.Y.) software company to give them access to tens
of thousands of credit reports using his company’s password, they
illustrated how the Net makes the part of ID theft that was hard until
now — accumulating the information — much easier. With widely
available credit reports such an integral part of American business,
it’s hard to imagine how the credit agencies can quickly and simply
limit access to the reports without impeding the flow of commerce.

With easy access to credit reports available to thousands of people
throughout the U.S., expect blockbuster ID thefts in 2003 and beyond.
Whereas credit-card numbers were traded freely on the Internet in the
past, now the bad guys will trade entire personal dossiers. And fixing
the problem will be much harder because it’s pretty easy to screen out
someone who has picked up one of your credit-card numbers but much
harder when it comes to a rogue who has that, your bank-account
number, you social security number, and the last five addresses you
have called home.

Of course, this little list is just the beginning. I haven’t even
touched on still-early trends such as merging physical and online
security: Companies are starting to look at guarding these assets in
coordination because often computer-security breaches start with
physical breaches.

Likewise, more and more businesses are installing software that tracks
theft of sensitive, high-end intellectual property. Once hamfisted,
the second generation of these systems works much better, according to
Gartner security analyst John Pescatore. Both of these are topics I’ll
explore in depth during the next few months as their markets and uses

All told, computer security remains one of the more dynamic areas of
the moribund IT sector. And it’ll get only more interesting in the
coming year.

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