2001 was dubbed, by some, the year of the virus. And not without good reason, as it brought the potentially damaging Code Red and Nimda worms, along with scores of lesser, more annoying threats into offices and homes worldwide. If 2001 was the year of the worm, though, what does 2002 hold for home users?
More than likely, lots more trouble, according to virus researchers at antivirus firms McAfee.com Corp. and Symantec Corp.
"Each (year) has the potential to be worse than the last," according to April Goostree, virus research manager at McAfee.com. "With each year, we all learned something new, whether you're on the good side or the bad."
Goostree expects virus writers will build on the successes and techniques used in 2001. As such, she forecasts a continued rise in the number of worms hitting the Web, especially those that attempt to spread through multiple methods and that try to exploit security vulnerabilities to do their damage. Nimda, which first hit the Web in October, functioned this way, spreading via e-mail, the Web, infected Web pages and through shared drives.
These types of worms or viruses, called "blended threats" by Symantec, will be on the rise in 2002, according to Steve Trilling, senior director of research at Symantec Security Response. More than just trying to spread, though, these programs will also attempt to take other actions, such as launching denial of service attacks, stealing passwords or deleting files, he said.
The goal of these programs is "to co-opt as many machines around the world as possible and then use that global reach" for another purpose, he said.
Both Goostree and Trilling warn that viruses and worms will likely target new or different communication methods, such as instant messaging, wireless and broadband.
Attacking these technologies could be particularly effective, Goostree said, because they are "applications that people don't associate with viruses ... so (people are) more likely to click on those links (to dangerous code)."
"We have historically seen threats target the newest technologies" and these technologies should be no different, Trilling added.
Luckily, according to Goostree, "the solutions for all of these things are out there" in the form of antivirus software and personal firewalls. Unfortunately, many users either don't keep their software up-to-date, deactivate it or use it incorrectly, she said.
"The tools are there, it's just a matter of getting people to use them," she said.
People don't always use proper precautions because "they just don't think it applies to them," she said. In an attempt to get the message out beyond the technology community, McAfee.com is stepping up efforts to have viruses and computer security covered by more mainstream publications, such as women's magazines, Goostree said. These outlets have traditionally been avoided because computer security was seen largely as a problem for the technically-minded, she said, but as more people connect to the Internet, "the problem's just going to get bigger and bigger and is going to touch more lives."
Because it touches so many users, Internet security is a cooperative effort that needs attention by all people who have Internet-connected computers, said Symantec's Trilling. Users should keep their antivirus software up-to-date, use personal firewalls, be cautious about e-mail attachments, even from people they know, and be sure to use long and hard-to-guess passwords, he said.
"How effective (worms and viruses) are going to be is dependent on how vigilant (people) are," he said.