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Using some of the security lingo of the last 12 months, you could say 2004 was the year botnets hijacked machines and created armies of zombie PCs, opening backdoors for spammers, phishers and all kinds of phreaks.
Pinpointing the origin of these security buzzwords is almost impossible. But industry experts say specific language comes to mind when they try to put the year in perspective. If 2003 was the year spam became a household word, they say, the terminology of 2004 had a lot to do with methods behind unsolicited, malicious messages.
"As far as I'm concerned, Bot is a big word as far as malicious activity for 2004," said Josh Lackey, an ethical hacker for IBM. "Bots nowadays have all sorts of functionality -- keystroke grabbers, network sniffers and the spam-forwarding proxies they kick off. As far as trends, spam has been a big thing, one of the biggest moneymakers out there, and the bots are behind a lot of this activity."
Prat Moghe, CEO and founder of Maynard, Mass.-based security firm Tizor Systems, agreed. "One big problem is how to ensure privacy and security when you are outsourcing things like your data center," he said. "There's no way to remotely monitor what's going on. With bots, now you have a situation where, by definition, someone remote is in control of your security process."
There was a growing use of spin-off language describing what botnets do: opening "backdoors" malicious programs use to "hijack" machines and turn them into "zombies" to pump out spam, which in turn can be used as part of a "phishing" scam.
"I would imagine that backdoors and hijacks were the biggest issues for those concerned by virus writers and spammers," said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Lynnfield, Mass.-based antivirus firm Sophos. "Virus writers open backdoors with their malware to allow themselves, other hackers and spammers to break in, steal information and resources. Once the computer is hijacked it can be used to launch denial-of-service attacks, spread a new virus or blast out spam campaigns."
When Moghe thinks about the past year, phishing is a word that immediately comes to mind.
"It's one word we've heard a lot more frequently," he said. "We've seen it getting more and more sophisticated. Targeted phishing is another phrase, where specific people and organizations like a bank are the targets. Forensics is another word we have heard more often. It's kind of an oxymoron. Forensics was always considered something for after the crime. Now it's more about how to deal before or during the attack."
Bryan Sartin, director of technology for Belgian security firm Ubizen, said the big issue of 2004 was the evolution of malware. In that regard, he lists compromise as a key word. It's not a new word, but it's something more security administrators were worrying about this year.
"We've dealt with a lot of companies that were compromised and had to turn to a third party for help," Sartin said. "Prevention is another word, especially in the financial, healthcare and university [sectors]." Again, not new words, he said. But words people uttered with more frequency this year.
Ask who came up with some of these words and you'll get theories but nothing definitive.
Lackey tried tackling the "ph" words. "Phreaking is actually a very old term that means hacking phone systems," he said. "You take a phone freak and add the ph to freak. I think that's the origin of phishing. In this case, you're fishing for things, and you add the ph because you're using the dial-up connection in a lot of cases."
When Sophos tries to come up with the appropriate buzzword for a new virus, Cluley said, the goal is simplicity.
"We try and avoid the more elaborate buzzwords as much as possible in favor of clear and concise communication," he said. "We're thinking of having a collection bucket where people have to pay every time they say they're planning to 'leverage' the 'paradigm.'"
Dig Deeper on Email and Messaging Threats (spam, phishing, instant messaging)