Channel Insider content and product recommendations are editorially independent. We may make money when you click on links to our partners. Learn More.

Just a few years ago Windows users, even responsible Windows users, had good reason to be fearful of the attack that would slip past their defenses or their notice.

Things have changed. Nobody should ever be complacent, but a responsible user can be confident that defensive software and good habits will protect them. More interestingly, attacks just aren’t what they used to be.

There have been a number of small attacks. Some of them, like the WMF vulnerability, enter the background of the malware scene and will be with us for a long time. Perhaps the most prominent security term of 2006 was “targeted attack.” We had quite a few of them, mostly centered around zero-day vulnerabilities in Microsoft Office. See the Kaspersky report for more interesting details on these vulnerabilities.

The focus on vulnerabilities generally is another point in the report. As I said, there is no innovation anymore in malware—except where it involves the exploit of a vulnerability, especially a zero-day exploit. But even these are often less of a threat than they used to be. A few years ago vulnerabilities brought us attacks like Blaster and Sasser, where users could be infected over the Internet while they were asleep. Now the exploit usually involves substantial user action and can often be blocked by anti-virus software.

Now I’m going to re-ask a question I’ve been asking vendors for a while now without what I consider a full answer: How many truly new infections do we have these days as opposed to re-compromises of systems already infected with other malware? I think the latter is where the action has been for a long time now. My theory that a very large percentage of new infections are on already-infected systems has two main arguments in its favor:

  • The systems are compromised, providing a hole through which new malware can attack
  • The users are proven to be willing to click on things they shouldn’t

When you look at the data from AV companies on what the most prevalent attacks are it’s like a trip through the way-back machine. Look at Sophos’ report on the Top 10 viruses reported to Sophos in October 2006, and bear in mind that Sophos doesn’t have much of a consumer presence, just business:

  1. W32/Netsky-P
  2. W32/Mytob-AS
  3. W32/Stratio-Zip
  4. W32/Bagle-Zip
  5. W32/Netsky-D
  6. W32/Stratio-AY
  7. W32/Mytob-C
  8. W32/Zafi-B
  9. W32/Nyxem-D
  10. W32/Mytob-E

Attackers are left now trying to get through zero-day holes and bizarre new attacks. A good example was discussed recently by John Heasman of Next Generation Security Software: It’s possible to hide malware in the memory of PCI-based devices like graphics cards in such a way that they can survive a reboot. These attacks often share a lack of universality for their target. The PCI rootkit attack described in the paper may have to be written specifically to each type of card.

So as you’re relaxing on Thanksgiving (instead of watching the night game, because it’s on the NFL Network and your mother-in-law’s cable system doesn’t carry the damn channel!) think about how much better things are than in the past. In a few years computer crime and security attacks won’t be gone, but things will be even better.

Do you get the NFL Network? Let me know how the game went in the Talkback section below.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

Check out’s Security Center for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Ryan Naraine’s eWEEK Security Watch blog.

More from Larry Seltzer