Checkpoints around the cloud: the Conficker dilemma.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Apple’s decision to set up checkpoints around its cloud computing devices when reading Mark Bowden’s report on the Conficker botnet:

More than a billion computers are in use around the world, and by some estimates, a fourth of them have been surreptitiously linked to a botnet. But few botnets approach the size and menace of the one created by Conficker, which has stealthily linked between 6 million and 7 million computers.

Once created, botnets are valuable tools for criminal enterprise. Among other things, they can be used to efficiently distribute malware, to steal private information from otherwise secure Web sites or computers, to assist in fraudulent schemes, or to launch denial-of-service attacks—overwhelming a target computer with a flood of requests for response. The creator of an effective botnet, one with a wide range and the staying power to defeat security measures, can use it himself for one of the above scams, or he can sell or lease it to people who specialize in exploiting botnets. (Botnets can be bought or leased in underground markets online.)

Beyond criminal enterprise, botnets are also potentially dangerous weapons. If the right order were given, and all these computers worked together in one concerted effort, a botnet with that much computing power could crack many codes, break into and plunder just about any protected database in the world, and potentially hobble or even destroy almost any computer network, including those that make up a country’s vital modern infrastructure: systems that control banking, telephones, energy flow, air traffic, health-care information—even the Internet itself.

The key word there is could, because so far Conficker has done none of those things. It has been activated only once, to perform a relatively mundane spamming operation—enough to demonstrate that it is not benign. No one knows who created it. No one yet fully understands how it works. No one knows how to stop it or kill it. And no one even knows for sure why it exists.

Also, paging Mr. Baudrillard:

“If I disappear, there’s no map,” [Rodney Joffe] says. “So if you take us down, whole countries can actually disappear from the grid. They’re connected, but no one can find their way there, because the map’s disappeared.”