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A decade ago, social media didn’t exist. By 2008, Facebook had become popular enough to attract the attention of malware authors. One of them created an annoying cross-platform worm that targets Windows, Mac OS X, and even Linux. The worm gathered login details, built a botnet, and made money by installing additional malware. It also used a common social engineering trick, trying to convince potential victims that they needed to install a Flash Player update that was actually the malicious payload.
Facebook took down the network by decapitating its control servers in early 2011.
All pretty routine stuff, by modern standards, but the twist is that this gang was unmasked after several years of making Facebook users’ lives miserable. ZDNet blogger Dancho Danchev published his own takedown of the botnet master on January 9, 2012, complete with embarrassing personal photos. Facebook publicly revealed the identities of the entire gang the following week.
(The image above was captured by an amateur researcher.)
Conficker is the poster child for modern malware.
Its original incarnation in late 2008 exploited a vulnerability that had been patched a month earlier, but because many Windows users are slow to apply patches, it was extremely effective.
But its particular genius was the way it used a Windows feature called AutoRun, along with social engineering, to spread like wildfire. As the dialog box above shows, Conficker spread by infecting ubiquitous USB flash drives (another technology that didn’t exist at the beginning of the decade). It convinced unwary users to click an innocent-looking option in the AutoRun dialog box that appeared when a USB drive was inserted into a PC.
To add insult to injury, it then used a simple dictionary attack to find administrator accounts on the network that used pathetically weak passwords like letmein and 123456 and asdfgh and Admin. Turns out there’s a lot of lazy admins out there.
Microsoft’s response in February 2009 included a $250,000 bounty for identifying the Conficker authors. It closed the USB Autorun hole in the initial release of Windows 7 but didn’t deliver the equivalent patch as a Critical update for Windows XP and Vista until early 2011.
Microsoft and a loose amalgamation of security professionals called the Conficker Working Group shut down the Conficker botnet by taking over its command-and-control servers through legal processes. Today, there are still several million Conficker-infected PCs, but their ability to be controlled by evil forces is long gone.
Why did it take so long for Microsoft to include effective, free antivirus software as part of Windows? Blame the 2001 United States versus Microsoft antitrust settlement, which severely restricted the company's ability to bundle software with Windows if that software would compete with third-party products.
Through the decade, Microsoft slowly introduced various antimalware solutions. Windows Live OneCare was a paid product, and Windows Defender (included free with Windows Vista) blocked only adware and spyware.
Microsoft Security Essentials was the first free full-strength security product from Microsoft, based on the same engine as the enterprise-grade Forefront product. Its successor will be included by default in all editions of Windows 8, using the well-established Windows Defender brand name.