Top 10 tech scares of the decade

The past ten years saw some terrifying technology--and we haven't even faced the Death Star yet.

The dawn of the new millennium prompted fears about the future, but so far reality has not quite matched the predictions of catastrophe. The first ten years passed uneventfully--well, aside from Y2K and a bunch of intelligent computer viruses. Here's a look back at the past decade, and ten of the most terrifying tech scares.

1. Y2K

Year: 2000

Predicted outcome: End of the world and technology as we know it

Actual outcome: Accidental alarms, slot machine failures, incorrect dates on Websites

If you were around for the turn of the millennium, you undoubtedly heard something about Y2K and its potential outcomes. Then you probably felt like it didn't live up to the hype when the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2000, and nuclear missiles didn't start automatically launching themselves.

The "millennium bug" actually could have happened at the turn of any regular ol' century--not just the millennium. The concern was valid: Many computing systems used two digits to store the year, and so the rollover from 99 to 00 could cause various logic errors (such as recognizing the New Year as 19100) that would cause the system to fail.

Luckily, technicians were aware of the issue (it was first mentioned in print as early as 1984), and made the appropriate corrections. While the fear-mongering media no doubt overhyped Y2K, it was a real problem that would have caused some large-scale issues had your trusty IT guys not been on the ball.

2. Conficker Worm

Years: 2008-2009

Predicted outcome: Not applicable

Actual outcome: An estimated 10 million home/business/government computers under its control

The Conficker worm (also known as Downup, Downadup, and Kido), first detected in 2008, was a virus that targeted Windows operating systems. The worm used advanced malware techniques to take over machines and turn them into zombie/host computers that the worm's authors could control remotely. The Conficker infection was believed to be one of the largest computer infections since 2003, and analysts have suggested that as many as 10 million machines were affected.

Conficker spread in three ways: It attacked vulnerability in the Microsoft Server service, it guessed administrator passwords, and it infected removable devices with an autorun file that executed as soon as someone plugged the device (such as a USB flash drive) into another machine. The virus was particularly notable for its ability to spread rapidly throughout business networks; home computers were less likely to be infected.

The last known variant of Conficker was effectively quashed in mid-April 2009, but the authors of the worm remain unknown. The threat was so serious that Microsoft and ICANN offered a $250,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Conficker's authors.They are still at large.

3.Mydoom

Years: 2004-2009

Predicted outcome: Not applicable

Actual outcome: The fastest-spreading e-mail worm ever

In January 2004 a new e-mail worm began spreading around the Net, appearing as a transmission-error message with an attachment. If the victim ran the attachment, the worm would not only send itself out to everyone on any address book it could find but also would attach itself to any copies of Kazaa to spread via peer-to-peer networks.

The worm eventually gained the name Mydoom, courtesy of a McAfee employee who was one of the first to discover the virus.

Mydoom has resurfaced intermittently since then, and a variation on the worm was a part of the 2009 cyberattacks on South Korea. The original author of the worm has never been found, but security firms have speculated that it was commissioned by e-mail spammers and that it originated in Russia.

4. Anonymous

Year: Reported in 2007

Predicted outcome: Hackers on steroids, "The Internet Hate Machine"

Actual outcome: Porn on YouTube, DDoS attacks on Scientology

In 2007, KTTV Fox 11 News in Los Angeles ran a sensational report about a group called Anonymous. According to the KTTV report, this "Internet hate machine" was to be feared for such devastating crimes as spoiling the end of the new Harry Potter book. The report was rife with creepy, faceless pictures and lurid phrases such as "hackers on steroids" and "domestic terrorists."

Unfortunately, KTTV's fantastic report was wrong: Anonymous is not a specific group at all, just a name for any random collection of users from various online communities and IRC networks working together (rather, in the same direction) at any given time. Wired has more accurately described Anonymous as a group of "supremely bored 15-year-olds."

Crimes--Internet annoyances, really--that have been attributed to Anonymous include DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks on various Websites (including that of the Church of Scientology, and, more recently, Websites that withdrew support from WikiLeaks) and assorted cases of Internet vigilantism.

5. RFID Tracking

Years: 2002-Present

Predicted outcome: The government will be able to track your every move

Actual outcome: New passports

Radio-frequency identification, or RFID, is a technology for tracking assorted objects. RFID most commonly appears in the form of tiny chips, or "tags," which can be attached to an object for identification and monitoring; currently they're embedded in a variety of things, including passports, security passes, and store inventory. Information stored on the chip is accessible to an RFID reader, which transmits frequency waves that "wake up" the chip.

RFID technology has been heavily criticized, and it's not hard to see why: Even if manufacturers put chips in products without intending to invade people's privacy, the technology can be exploited easily. In theory, RFID tags could be used to track everything from shopping and spending habits to someone's exact location.

6. ILOVEYOU Virus

Year: 2000

Predicted outcome: Not applicable

Actual outcome: Over 50 million computers infected; over $5.5 billion in damages

The ILOVEYOU virus was a computer worm that spread via e-mail. Similar to other e-mail worms, the virus required that users run the executable file (written in Visual Basic Scripting, or VBS). To induce victims to do so, the worm disguised itself as a text file by putting .TXT into its name; when people saw that the file was called "LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU.TXT.vbs," they thought they were opening a harmless text file.

Once the victim opened the file, the worm would send copies of the e-mail to the first 50 contacts in the user's Windows Address Book, and then make changes to the system (it would overwrite a number of files, including all .JPG and .DOC files, with copies of itself).

The ILOVEYOU virus was particularly effective for two reasons: It was sent from "safe" senders (those already in the recipient's address book), and the file resembled a text file. As a result, the virus managed to reach an estimated 50 million computers (only Windows computers were affected) and cause an estimated $5.5 billion in damages--the Pentagon, the CIA, and the British Parliament all had to shut down their e-mail systems.

Just a day after the virus started spreading, police in the Philippines arrested two computer programming students. Unfortunately, the authorities were unable to convict the two of any crime, as there was no law, at the time, against writing malicious code.

7. Technology Crashes Planes

Years: 2000-Present

Predicted outcome: Planes falling out of the sky

Actual outcome: Lies

That's right, the TSA will take away your bottled water and your nail file, but they'll let you keep your smartphone--despite the fact that the in-flight crew will warn all passengers to turn off their cell phones for the duration of the flight or face dire consequences.

There has never been any documented case of a cell phone causing interference with a plane's navigation system. Obviously--do you really think that they'd let everybody waltz onto a 500-ton metal aircraft with a potential bomb in their pocket? That would certainly make terrorists' jobs a lot easier.

8. Witty Worm

Year: 2004

Predicted outcome: Not applicable

Actual outcome: First worm to carry a destructive payload; infected 12,000 machines

The Witty worm, first detected in 2004, was an important, scary computer virus for a number of reasons--namely, it was the first worm to carry a malicious "payload" that slowly destroyed the host computers it infected.

Although Witty infected only about 12,000 machines--none of them home PCs--the worm was still a pretty big deal. It exploited a hole in Internet Security Systems firewall and security software packages, and it spread rapidly just days after the vulnerability was announced. The worm was called the "Witty" worm because the payload featured the phrase "(^.^) insert witty message here (^.^)."

The worm was particularly frightening for network administrators because it infected computers that should have been more secure (because of the ISS software).

9. Koobface

Years: 2008-Present (new variants)

Predicted outcome: Not applicable

Actual outcome: Still not dead

Koobface, introduced in 2008, is a computer worm that targets social networking Websites. It can infect all three of the major operating systems--Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux (to a limited extent)--and can gain username/password information, but not financial information, from infected computers.

"Koobface" infects users via Facebook messages. Unlike some worms, Koobface requires some effort on the part of the user in order for it to infect a computer. First, it delivers a Facebook message with a link from the account of an infected user. The potential victim must then click on the link, download a file (usually disguised as an update to Adobe Flash Player), and then run the file. If they do so, Koobface can infect the computer and use it to send more messages.

Koobface has infected an estimated 500,000 computers, and it spreads easily because it sends messages to "friends" of infected Facebook users, usually with tantalizing, legitimate-sounding subject lines such as "Spring Break Bikini Mud-Jello Wrestling Youtube Video LOL!!!"

10. 2012

Year: 2012

Predicted outcome: End of the world; end of bad movies starring John Cusack

Actual outcome: ???

The year 2012 is (at least, according to some people) the last year in a 5125-year cycle on the Mesoamerican (Mayan) Long Count calendar. More specifically, December 21, 2012, is the last day of the cycle.

The date is not only the final date in a 5125-year cycle, it's also full of ones and twos--and we know how superstitious the world is when it comes to numbers. So naturally, people speculate that everything from the Apocalypse to a spiritual awakening to absolutely nada will happen in 2012, despite the fact that the Mayans themselves are pretty unconcerned.

If the world does end, that probably means the end of technology as we know it. If it doesn't, though, we have Windows 8, laser heads-up displays in cars, and maybe a Verizon iPhone to look forward to.

This story, "Top 10 tech scares of the decade" was originally published by PCWorld.

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