Weird and woeful predictions made at conference

The good news: by 2010, computers should match the human brain in processing power. The bad news: by decade’s end, wireless-based viruses, hacking, and security breaches will be even more of a headache for IT administrators.

These forecasts were made by IBM and Symantec respectively at the 15 th annual Canadian IT Security Symposium earlier this month. It was hosted at the Ottawa Congress Centre by the Communications Security Establishment (CSE).

IBM Research’s John Heidenreich dazzled delegates with Big Blue’s view of the future. After opening with a list of past failed predictions – like Bill Gates’ 1981 quip that “640K ought to be enough for anybody” – Heidenreich resolutely detailed “the changes we believe will come to pass.”

First, “the message in technology is a simple one: faster, better, cheaper,” he said. Next, Heidenreich predicted that by the time “silicon runs out of steam,” molecularly-based nanotechnology will take its place. “My guess is that you will start to see machines built using nanotechnology by the end of this decade,” he told symposium delegates.

Other IBM Research predictions: within 10 years, computers will be embedded in so many devices, that non-embedded desktop and laptop computers will cease to be made. Supercomputers will also attain processing power equivalent to the human brain, “but without all the autonomic distractions,” Heidenreich said. As a comparison, he characterized the IBM Deep Blue supercomputer that beat chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997 as having the computation power “of a lizard.”

Heidenreich then tempered IBM Research’s predictions with a few warnings.

One: the ongoing “data explosion” is growing at a “superexponential” rate. The result is more information than humans alone can analyze: to sift through data accurately, they need new computers to help.

Two: IT managers must start asking, “What does it cost me when my information systems go down?” Heidenreich added that IT failures are likely to cause “major disasters” in the future. Already, a failed SAP installation crashed one Canadian bank’s IT system for five days, Heidenreich reported, while another company’s ERP misadventures caused it to miss its quarterly sales targets.

Three: the real reason for developing computers with human-sized processing capability – autonomic computers – is not so that they can think, but rather to help humans manage IT systems effectively.

“Autonomic computing is not about technology,” Heidenreich said. “Autonomic computing is about [maintaining] standards.”

Wireless precautions

Meanwhile, Symantec Corp. CTO Robert A. Clyde offered delegates a cautionary tale about wireless security. Citing IDC research, Clyde said there will be 589 million mobile Internet users in 2005; about half of all Internet users by this point in time. The problem, he said, is that many of these mobile, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-connected users won’t have adequate protection from viruses and hackers.

Of particular concern to Clyde is the burgeoning growth of 802.11b wireless access points; many of which are installed by employees without the knowledge of their IT departments. Such “rogue access points” tend to be unsecured, he noted, giving Wi-Fi-equipped hackers easy access into corporate systems.

The problems with mobile/Wi-Fi/Bluetooth connectivity don’t end there, Clyde added. Infected devices can import viruses and malicious code directly into a corporate system whenever they’re synched, while data cached on Wi-Fi laptops with Windows File Share switched on can be accessed by wireless hackers.

The answer, Clyde told delegates, is to develop basic wireless security precautions. These include defining corporate standards for wireless devices and operating systems, standardizing and controlling wireless purchases through one corporate entity, and specifying what data/applications are safe to store on firewall-protected, encryption-enabled devices. He also suggested routing all Wi-Fi access points through a firewall before letting them access the wired corporate network, applying encryption to all remote links, and using updated anti-virus filtering.

Clyde concluded by saying that wireless access is quickly becoming a fact of corporate life. His last word to delegates? “Get ahead of the curve, and find out how you can handle it securely.”