The next generation of super viruses

In the future, it may be possible to write a virus that harms more than just your computer. In this article, Brien Posey looks at three trends that could be exploited by what he calls a super virus.

Lately, I’ve seen three trends at work within the computer industry. As I’ve studied these trends, it has become apparent that within a few years it may be possible to write viruses that harm more than just your computer. In this article, I’ll briefly discuss these trends. I’ll then explain how the combination of these three trends could be exploited by what I like to call a super virus.

Trend number one: Broadband becomes more common
The first key to a super virus is the high availability and low cost of emerging broadband technologies. Technologies such as cable modems and DSL lines are already making it into thousands of homes across the country. Not only do such broadband technologies offer high speed, they also provide a permanent connection to the Internet. This means that as long as the computer and router are powered on, an active Internet connection exists.

If you’re currently using a DSL line, cable modem, or similar “always-on” connection, I can’t stress the need for a firewall highly enough. This is because with such technologies, there’s absolutely nothing preventing a hacker from accessing your PC from across the Internet unless you have a good firewall. Firewalls range in price from a couple hundred dollars to many thousands, and firewalls exist that are specifically designed to protect a system that’s connected to a DSL line or a cable modem.

As you can imagine, a super virus could be designed to exploit the always-on feature of such broadband connections. This isn’t something to ignore, since broadband is becoming increasingly popular. A new broadband technology is being tested in some areas. This new technology uses electrical wires to carry IP packets to and from the Internet. This technique is also aimed at eventually being an alternative to running cable for a home network.

Trend number two: Mass virus replication
In the past several weeks, we’ve seen multiple viruses that have circled the globe in a matter of hours. This is primarily because these viruses are designed to be deployed through e-mail across the Internet. Therefore, as you can see, a method of mass viral replication already exists. Such techniques are key to creating a super virus.

Trend number three: Home automation
The final trend that I want to discuss is that of home automation. Recently, I’ve been working on extensively remodeling my house. As you might expect from a techno junkie such as myself, I’ve been researching all of the latest home automation products so that I can totally computerize my home. Right now, you can link several home products together in a very crude kind of way. However, I’ve been reading about some prototype products that can be networked and exchange data even though the products may be dissimilar. For example, one manufacturer is developing a washer and dryer that can use your home network to display a message on your television screen when your laundry is done. Another major appliance manufacturer is developing a refrigerator that includes a barcode scanner. This scanner can help you maintain a food inventory and may eventually be able to automatically order your groceries on line.

These are just two examples of how home automation may work in a few years. If it all sounds a little far-fetched, it really isn’t. If you stop and think about it, these appliances will be doing what XML is already doing: allowing dissimilar programs to exchange information and work together. In fact, last fall at Comdex, Bill Gates discussed the issue of all sorts of devices around your home being able to seamlessly communicate with the Internet and with each other.

The super virus
Now that I’ve discussed the three trends, here’s how a super virus could exploit them. I mentioned earlier that you may eventually be able to get Internet access across the wires that supply your home with electricity. I also mentioned that the prototype appliances I discussed use your home’s electrical wiring as an alternative to network cables. If this is the case, that means that every appliance in your home may be indirectly connected to the Internet as well as to every other appliance in every house on your street.

With this in mind, imagine a virus that replicates through e-mail at a rapid rate, similarly to the viruses we’ve seen recently. Now imagine this virus contains a script that can communicate with your appliances and force them to stop responding to you. For example, the virus may switch on your dryer and leave it on until your clothes catch fire. It could also change the channel on your TV to force you to watch the most annoying program ever made. But the upside is that if you got such a virus you’d know it right away, and you wouldn’t have to wonder why 15 trucks full of groceries just showed up at your house.

I’d like to emphasize that such a virus doesn’t exist. The necessary appliances aren’t even publicly available yet. However, such a virus is definitely a possibility as appliances around your home, and even in your cars, become more and more computerized. My prediction is that in a few years, every home will need a firewall and that the very way we scan for and remove viruses will have to evolve along with the devices that the viruses may infect.

Brien M. Posey is an MCSE who works as a freelance technical writer and as a network engineer for the Department of Defense. If you’d like to contact Brien, send him an e-mail. (Because of the large volume of e-mail he receives, it's impossible for him to respond to every message. However, he does read them all.)

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

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