“I see him, or them, as a really well-educated, smart businessman,” he said. “He may be 50 years old. These guys are not chumps. They’re not just out to make a buck.”
The eastern European, backpedaling from further dialogue with the security geek, wrote, “You’re the good guys; we’re the bad guys. Bacillus can’t live with antibodies.”
“Now, I didn’t grow up in a bad neighborhood or anything,” said Martinez, “but the few thugs that I saw would never use a word like bacillus or make an analogy like that.”
One of the early clues in the hunt was the peculiarity in the Conficker code that made computers with active Ukrainian keyboards immune. Much of the world’s aggressive malware comes from eastern Europe, where there are high levels of education and technical expertise, and also thriving organized criminal gangs. Martinez believes Conficker was written by a group of highly skilled programmers. Like Joffe, he sees it as a group of creators, because designing the worm required expertise in so many different disciplines. He suspects that these skilled programmers and technicians either were hired by a criminal gang, or created the worm as their own illicit business venture. If that’s true, then the Waledac maneuver was like flexing Conficker’s pinkie—just a demonstration, a way of showing that despite the best and most concerted effort of the world’s computer-security establishment, the worm was fully operational and under their control.
Will they be caught?
“I have no idea,” Martinez says. “I would say probably not. I’ll be shocked if they’re ever arrested. And arrest them for what? Is breaking into people’s computers even illegal where they’re from? Because in a lot of countries, it isn’t. As a matter of fact, in some countries, unless you’re touching a computer in their jurisdiction, their country, that’s not illegal. So who’s going to arrest them, even if we know who they are?”
Ridding computers of the worm poses another kind of overwhelming problem.
“There are controls, or checks and balances, in place to limit what police can do, because we have civil liberties to protect,” he says. “If you do away with these checks and balances, where the government can come in and reimage your computer overnight, now you’re infringing on people’s civil liberties. So, I mean, we can talk about this all day, but I’ll tell you, it’s going to be a long time, in my opinion, before we really see the government being able to effectively deal with cyber crime, because I think we’re still learning as a culture, as a nation, and as a world how to deal with this stuff. It’s too new.”
Imagining Conficker’s creators as a skilled group of illicit cyber entrepreneurs remains the prevailing theory. Some of the good guys feel that the worm will never be used again. They argue that it has become too notorious, too visible, to be useful. Its creators have learned how to whip computer-security systems worldwide, and will now use that knowledge to craft an even stealthier worm, and perhaps sell it to the highest bidder. Few believe Conficker itself is the work of any one nation, because other than the initial quirk of the Ukrainian-keyboard exemption, it spreads indiscriminately. China is the nation most often suspected in cyber attacks, but there may be more Conficker-infected computers in China than anywhere else. Besides, a nation seeking to create a botnet weapon is unlikely to create one as brazen as Conficker, which from the start has exhibited a thumb-in-your-eye, catch-me-if-you-can personality. It is hard to imagine Conficker’s creators not enjoying the high level of cyber gamesmanship. The good guys certainly have.