No love lost for e-commerce security

A week after the I Love You virus wreaked its billions of dollars of damage on the world's computer networks, the Federal Government handed down Budget 2000. It revealed a Government newly serious about computer crime. The nation's information infrastructure is to be saved by giving $2 million to allow ASIO, the Department of Defence, the Attorney General's department and the Federal Police to work together to protect key infrastructure.

The piddling amount of money allotted to the task demonstrates the sadly persistent attitude of many public and private organisations to-ward computer security: that it's not a major problem and, in any case, if you spend $2 million protecting the national infrastructure the problem will go away.

As I Love You demonstrated, a few lines of computer code can bring banks, governments, law firms, manufacturers, publishers and small business to their knees. Yet even when the problem is identified, and demonstrated, people apparently remain reluctant to accept the magnitude of the problem.

When I Love You struck, most of corporate Japan was away from work celebrating the national holiday known as Golden Week. When workers returned to their desks the following week, I Love You was well documented and warnings rife. Japanese employees, however, ignored the warnings, opened their e-mails and another round of viral infection broke out.

It is a little like a biological virus. When you see someone else sniffling and complaining about an unspecified virus you consider them a malingerer; when you yourself catch it, you readily admit this one is definitely second cousin to the bubonic plague.

The attack shouldn't have come as a complete surprise. A warning shot about computer security had been heard earlier in the year with the round of denial of service attacks made on major online companies in February. Hackers launched denial of service attacks on the big names, rendering Yahoo inaccessible for three hours; Buy.com and eBay also went down. Only a trickle of people made it to CNN, and it was virtually impossible to trade on Amazon. Sharebrokers E*Trade and Datek and search vehicle Excite could not be reached.

For the sceptical, the denial of service attacks were a clear indication that computer security is important in the e-commerce age. And there were many sceptics.

Early this year, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu in association with the Information Systems Audit and Control Association released the findings of a survey of executives in 46 countries about their attitude to risk and computer security. That research revealed "a consistent assessment among those questioned that e-commerce security presents low risk. With regard to the risk of the availability of e-commerce, denial of service and destruction of Web sites are perceived to present the highest level of exposure, albeit low-risk overall."

It continued, "the most surprising finding from our research is that 69 per cent of companies with no security policies are also satisfied with the achievement of their control objectives."

Run that by me one more time. Seven out of 10 companies had no security policies and did not think they were at risk. Presumably, after the February denial of service attacks and May's I Love You epidemic, those seven out of 10 are reviewing their opinions.

They should. Computer attacks are escalating. According to the Australian Computer Emergency Response Team, which offers a remedial and advisory service to companies which are hacked or attacked, by March of this year 1823 unauthorised incidents had been reported - seven more than in the entire 12 months of 1999. By the end of this year that will have soared again, nudged considerably by I Love You.

The corporate world clearly felt the brunt of the May virus attacks, but consumers and small business were also affected, and were without the large corporate information systems departments, which could be called upon to fix problems.

Again, it served as an important reminder about not only the need for antiviral software, but also for good general computer hygiene. This includes the need to regularly update virus checkers and download new versions when they become available, the overwhelming need for regular and thorough backups, and the requirement for vigilance with unsolicited e-mail. I Love You may have been neutralised, but other virus strains will be under development somewhere.

And, meanwhile, the Government is eking out those $2 million to protect our national information infrastructure. Let's hope they don't spend it all at once.

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Beverley Head

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