This week vnunet.com's security correspondent Iain Thomson reads his tea leaves and offers his predictions for 2004.
Last year's predictions proved very popular and reasonably accurate, so this year I'm going to give it another shot. See how you thought this year turned out against my predictions, then decide if you want to read on.
1. Microsoft's security woes will not disappear
It's true that as the dominant software on the planet Microsoft is going to be targeted by hackers and virus writers, but the company is improving too slowly and in some cases regressing.
Exchange Server 2003, the first product from the new security-conscious Microsoft programmers, may not require as much patching as previous incarnations but it still contains serious flaws.
The company's policy of now only patching once a month will leave more users vulnerable, although it does reduce the number of bad headlines they have to read. But what I hear most from administrators is that they want to patches to be much more reliable as well as more frequent.
2. Malware writers will outpace system administrators
The time it takes to reverse engineer a patch and get malware up on the message boards has plummeted from weeks to days, and looks set to become more widespread.
It's never been more important to patch fast but work pressures and fears of bad patches bringing down the network mean most systems remain unpatched for months.
While this continues everyone is vulnerable. Hackers are banking on this delay and they have more time to devote to their activities than most system administrators have to police them. Outsourcing may be an answer, but you must be 100 per cent sure of your provider's reliability.
3. Hackers will organise
Hacking contests are nothing new; most hackers do what they do primarily for the recognition of their technical prowess. But in the Far East, hacking competitions are being turned into recruitment drives for hacking clans, with the winners being invited to join up.
How widespread this practice becomes will depend on the law enforcement community. Joining a clan may lose its appeal if candidates see the early rings being broken up by the authorities.
4. Virus writing for fun and profit
Increasingly, viruses are going to carry more destructive payloads than rants against Bill Gates, and harvest more than your email addresses. Bank details, identity details for fraud purposes, and back doors that allow off-site storage of illicit material on your servers are all going to become very popular.
Organised criminals are also getting wise to this new use of viruses, and increasingly will be buying the skills of hackers or training their own and placing them in target companies.
Putting hackers in high-security prisons helps this; many may happily do a job or two for criminals after their release in exchange for protection while serving their sentence.
5. Don't hold your breath for Longhorn
Microsoft's new secure operating system, built from the ground up with security in mind, is unlikely to be released in 2004 as planned.
The concept of Longhorn is grand in scale, but so often in the past such ambitions have not been initially matched by the product. When it works, mind you, businesses will love it.
Although the demonstrations so far have been impressive, getting the full product to market is going to be incredibly difficult. If it is released next year it will almost certainly be ridden with bugs.
Experience shows us that it is the brave administrator who rolls out any Microsoft product before it is in its second or third generation (see DOS, Internet Explorer, Pocket PC etc).
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