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Computer security threats: A brief history

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By Regan Brown, Writer, Dell

Print and online media have given extensive coverage to the recent security breach where Russian hackers stole more than a billion passwords, usernames and email addresses.

In light of this and similar threats, IT security and protecting sensitive data are more important than ever. Over time, computer security threats have become much more sophisticated and more damaging. But this evolution has happened over decades. Tracking these changes reveals some fascinating insights into how criminals have worked to change their tactics and how businesses have responded.

Early security problems: moths and Cap’n Crunch

One of the first recorded computer security threats actually didn’t come from a human. In 1945, Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper found a moth among the relays of a Navy computer and called it a “bug.” From this, the term “debugging” was born. It wasn’t until the 1960s that humans started exploiting networks. From 1964 to 1970, AT&T caught hundreds of people obtaining free phone calls through the use of tone-producing “blue boxes.” Later in the 1970s, John Draper found another way to make free phone calls by using a blue box and plastic toy whistle that came in Cap’n Crunch cereal boxes. The two items combined to replicate a tone unlocking AT&T’s phone network.

The rise of worms and viruses

By 1979, computer threats took on another form. In that year, the researchers created the first computer worm. Originally intended to help computers, the bug was modified by hackers so it would destroy and alter data. Just a few years later, computer viruses were created. By 1988, damage became widespread as a worm disabled around 6,000 computers connected to the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network. And by 1990, the first self-modifying viruses were created.

Going global: worldwide attacks

When the mid-1990s hit, viruses went international as the first Microsoft Word-based virus using macro commands spread all over the world. In 1998, hackers took control of more than 500 government, military, and private computer systems with the “Solar Sunrise” attacks. Two years later, other hackers were able to crash Amazon, Yahoo and eBay’s websites. In 2001, the Code Red worm ended up causing $2 billion in damage by infecting Microsoft Windows NT and Windows 2000 server software. The large-scale attacks continued into 2006, when anywhere from 469,000 to one million computers were infected with the Nyxem virus.

Explosive connection, rapid infection

In the mid-2000s, as people connected to the Internet like never before, widespread infection rates exploded as well. The Storm Worm virus in 2007 and the Koobface virus in 2008 used emails and social media to spread rapidly, infecting millions of computers. Hackers also stole data with the Conficker worm in 2009. In 2012, the Heartbleed bug was discovered, which took advantage of a flaw in the OpenSSL security software library to access sensitive data like passwords. And in 2013 one of the most infamous attacks occurred, when hackers gained access to retail giant Target’s servers, leading to the theft of 70 million customer records.

As you can see, computer security threats are nothing new. But as they get bigger and bolder, companies have to protect their data in new ways. Clearly, the “patch and pray” approach can’t keep the bad guys at bay any more. But what can? The race is on for bigger, better connected and more proactive solutions that stay one step ahead. A few years from now, it sure would be great to read a History of Computer Threats article calling this Russian data heist the last big caper of its kind. Meanwhile, change your passwords!

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