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2008: A year of cowboys in IT security

The good, the bad and the ugly

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Security pundits are fond are characterising personalties in information security with reference to Westerns - hence hackers wear either a "black hat" or a "white hat" like their cowboy counterparts.

More recently these analogies have been replaced by comparisons with the horror genre. Security firms (usually ill-advisedly) talk about "silver-bullet" security technologies and, of course, networks of compromised PCs are called zombie botnets. Call us old fashioned but we still prefer the Westerns and, in celebration of one of the few quintessential American art forms (alongside jazz), we'd like to take a look back at 2008 in information security through the lens of classic Westerns, with a few Vulture Central casting suggestions.

Probably the biggest security story of the year was the take-down of infamous cybercrime hosting outfit McColo. The rogue ISP hosted the command and control systems for three botnets - Srizbi, Rustock and Mega-D. Junk mail levels temporarily fell to a third their normal level following the takedown of McColo in November.

A deserved tip of the hat is due to Bryan Krebs of SecurityFix and the security researchers who drew up evidence that prompted McColo's upstream providers to pull the plug. Krebs and his gang are 2008's Yul Brynner and the rest of The Magnificent Seven.

McColo's lack of scruples in the hunt for a pay-day, meanwhile, makes it something like the character Frank from Once Upon a Time in the West.

Volunteer security community CastleCops hung up its spurs in late December. This latter-day Shane aided ordinary surfers and fought fraud for six years. In particular, CastleCops was a scourge of corrupt cattle drivers phishing fraudsters. They'll be sadly missed.

Dan Kaminsky was rightly lauded as a security hero in 2008. After exposing the Sony rootkit a few years back this year he discovered a gaping flaw involving DNS cache poisoning. Crucially Kaminsky also brought together a posse of vendors to slay the flaw before the bad guys were able to take advantage of the fundamental protocol vulnerability, which became public knowledge back in July. He's our Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne).

FBI senior cybercrime agent J Keith Mularski hoodwinked cybercrooks who frequented the DarkMarket carder forums for two years by posing as a spammer. Mularski (AKA Master Splynter) got inside to take down carders, scammers and other ne'er do wells; somewhat akin to how the Man with No Name brought down the Baxters and the Rojos in a A Fistful of Dollars.

Activity surrounding the infamous Storm Worm, a pioneer in the creation of botnets, dwindled out in the latter half of 2008. Few believe that we've heard the last of the Wild Bunch behind the worm.

Interest in extra-terrestrials is not a big feature of any Westerns we know of, or can imagine, at least until Alex Cox helms a cowboy film. The US authorities dogged campaign to drag Gary McKinnon to the US for trial brings to mind the hunt for Butch and Sundance. Let's hope McKinnon doesn't wind up dying in a hail of bullets in Bolivia.

The whole long-running saga has developed elements of farce over the years so perhaps casting McKinnon as the Waco kid might be more appropriate. ®

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