December 20, 2004, 9:18 AM — Experts agree: 2004 was the best of times, and the worst of times for those concerned about IT security. It was a year with high-profile arrests of virus authors, and the explosion of online crimes, from cyberextortion to identity theft, a year in which ISPs (Internet service providers) won millions in damages from spammers, and spam messages increased by 40 percent.
In hindsight, 2004 may be looked back upon as the year that a long tradition of hobbyist hackers and flashy, but harmless, viruses gave way to shadowy, professional online crime syndicates. The professionals were armed with virulent new threats designed to separate Internet users from their cash, according to interviews with leading security experts.
With that in mind, here's a look at some of the most important technology security stories and trends of the last year:
Phishing for phun and profit
Online identity theft through sophisticated attacks known as "phishing scams" were the run-away security story of 2004, due to the explosive growth in such attacks.
Phishing scams are online crimes that use spam to direct Internet users to Web sites controlled by thieves, but designed to look like legitimate e-commerce sites. Users are asked to provide sensitive information, often under the guise of updating account information, which is then captured by the thieves.
E-mail security vendor MessageLabs Ltd. blocked an insignificant trickle of 279 such scams in September 2003. By September 2004, that trickle swelled to a flood of more than 2 million messages, according to a statement from the company. In all, MessageLabs said it blocked 18 million phishing e-mail messages in 2004.
The Anti-Phishing Working Group watched the number of reports of phishing Web sites increase by an average of 28 percent each month between July and November. The average phishing Web site operated for six days before being shut down, according to Peter Cassidy, secretary general of the group.
"Phishing has really exploded, it's been one of the biggest problems we've had," said Mikko Hypp