When talking about the Internet and associated technology, it is quite common to talk about cyberspace. A parallel universe, virtual and intangible, in which everything that exists in the real world can exist through a cable. Modern technologies have enabled the creation of this digital world in which any experience is possible.
We are surrounded by devices that can enable everyday activities to be carried out on the Web. Work, personal relations, business, leisure… there are few activities in 2006 outside the scope of the Internet. Perhaps we could demand that technology advances towards the transmission of physical senses beyond simply sight and hearing. Smell, taste and touch have not really been explored to complete our sensory experience in the way that, say, home cinema caters for our audio and visual senses. I don´t believe we´ll have to wait long in this area, in particular with respect to touch. The pornography industry will soon make its move in this direction, as gradually everything ends up having its counterpart on the Internet.
However, more sinister aspects of real life are also bridging the digital divide. Cyberspace is adopting not just the positive advances of humanity, but also the most negative aspects of our society.
Many experts would date the start of personal computing on a massive scale back to 1981, with the introduction of the first IBM PC systems. And along with the popularization of the PC came computer viruses. A wave of malicious code saturated systems. Although even infections that were then considered disastrous (Jerusalem, Michelangelo…), gave little insight into what would happen some years later, when the Web became a mirror of the real world. If at some time viruses were considered the first form of cyber life, this life form has evolved at a dangerous rate.
The authentic creators of malicious code initially created viruses as a hobby, and now they are genuine professionals earning serious sums of money. And how is it possible to earn money with a virus? If we continue to understand the concept of a virus as it was some years ago, evidently there is no financial return. Destruction for the sake of destruction, propagation of malicious code as an objective in itself has no benefit to anyone. Nevertheless, a small twist in the creation of the code has started to make this a profitable economic activity.
The shift from real to virtual life is also affecting malicious code. The creators of malware are now showing an interest in cyber crime. Illegal activities are now as much a part of the Internet as e-commerce, the sale of concert tickets or online newspapers.
Take the following example. A user visits a web page and a window appears asking for her consent to install small program (spyware). According to the web page, this is a special content viewer. In reality, this program will spy on the user´s Internet movements so that the adverts displayed on certain sites coincide with her lifestyle. Advertising agencies will charge more for this targeted advertising, bearing in mind that as they know the habits of the person, they know they are a potential client of the advertised product.
In this case the user is being robbed, even though she doesn´t realize. Her privacy when using the Internet has been invaded, she is no longer anonymous. And although many Internet users will not feel this is important, it is just the first step.
The next step is clear. If a programmer can spy on somebody´s Internet movements, why not go one step further and spy on online banking operations? On banking websites users enter login details and passwords which if known would make theft a simple task. A keylogger registers keystrokes and sends them to a hacker. Quick and simple: another victim of fraud.
Malware creators already know that they can get money out of users… so now they need more. And that´s what they will do, despite the obstacles we put in their path, as the amount at stake is considerable. Firstly, they will try to trick users into ‘voluntarily’ revealing the information they need. Phishing is oriented towards using subtle tricks to get users to send their details to the fraudsters who then use them to access bank accounts, etc. From simple e-mail passwords to credit card numbers, cyber crooks will try to entice the less-informed and more vulnerable users to fall for their scams.
Secondly, they have to fight against security companies. As fraud techniques evolve, so do security systems designed to prevent users from being affected. But until very recently, antivirus protection systems were fighting against a factor that was impossible to control: time.
When a virus took months to spread across a country, reaction time was not a fundamental problem. But the Internet has allowed viruses to spread at incredible speeds, and classic protection systems are no longer viable.
Viruses, spyware, keyloggers, phishing… Each of these threats represents a serious danger that has created the need for new protection systems. Obviously the best thing would be to have an expert on hand all the time to differentiate between good and bad code, and so, in this virtual world, we can also virtualize these experts.
Today´s security technology allows us to detect when we are suffering the consequences of malicious code. Given that these codes will always carry out a series of typical actions, these actions can be detected with sufficient time to stop the malicious program. This means that even if the program is unknown (ie, a traditional antivirus cannot detect it), it is possible to prevent the consequences of this program.
Thanks to this type of protection, theft of information can be prevented. We are no longer talking about a Word file containing your grandmother´s recipes. We´re talking about access to current accounts and possible financial ruin due to inadequate protection levels.