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Malware—Quantity over Quality

The explosion of malware is taxing the capabilities of security software companies. On the one hand, the increasingly large sums of money involved are pushing the creation of high-stakes, precisely targeted attacks on companies or individuals. At the same time, we continue to see criminals spamming the world with more “shotgun-style” attacks, which usually are less lucrative.

A report by Kaspersky Labs in Moscow confirms the preponderance of these broadly targeted attacks. The reason is the relative ease of outwitting popular, signature-based anti-virus software. Malware writers can test to see if their code is detected by the software. If it is, sometimes all they have to do is tweak it a bit to make it undetectable. This means analysts must struggle to update signatures to keep up with the onslaught of subtly differing variants. To get a sense for how challenging the situation has become, consider that Kaspersky added 10,000 signatures to its database in November 2006, compared with 2,000 in January 2005. To learn more about this problem and what security companies are doing about it, read this month’s conversation between Jamie Butler of Mandiant and Matt Williamson of Sana Security on page 16.


The Home Robotics Revolution

The past year has been good for robot enthusiasts. Lego finally released its Mindstorms update, NXT, to much acclaim, and Microsoft revealed the commercial version of its software development tool for robots, Robotics Studio. Microsoft designed the software to make it easier to program robots and enable reuse of bot code on a variety of hardware platforms. For example, the runtime environment is compatible with both Mindstorms and the hackable Roomba vacuum robot from iRobot. The software contains libraries that simplify multithreaded programming, essential for creating robots that genuinely multitask. It also enables actions to be choreographed among any number of collaborating robotic devices.

In an article in Scientific American, Bill Gates explains the motivations behind the software: “The goal was to see if it was possible to provide the same kind of common, low-level foundation for integrating hardware and software into robot designs that Microsoft Basic provided for computer programmers.” Microsoft clearly wants to drive the industry by making robot programming easier, but providing user-friendly developer tools is only part of the equation. Enabling the home robotics revolution needs a killer app, and at this stage it’s hard to tell what that will be. In any case, it’s unlikely that the robots of the future will resemble the clunky creations of today’s hobbyists. “Because the new machines will be so specialized and ubiquitous—and look so little like the two-legged automatons of science fiction—we probably will not even call them robots,” Gates writes.



For those who reject Bill Gates’s vision of robots as practical, purpose-built machines embedded into the fabric of our daily lives, look no further than Roboexotica. This annual convention held in Vienna showcases robots that excel at more or less practical behaviors, particularly those found in bars. One robot mixes drinks while insulting customers. Another bums cigarettes from people. It might sound like the idea of someone who’s had, well, a few too many, but Roboexotica’s participants are committed to changing the reputation of robots as specialized machines designed to do humans’ bidding.

One of the convention’s founders, Magnus Wurzer, sums up the general attitude the participants take toward their robotic creations: “They shouldn’t behave like they were in a factory, they should be cultured and urbane.” After years of banishment from Star Wars cantinas, it looks like the droids are finally getting their way.



Originally published in Queue vol. 5, no. 1
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