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6. Viruses and worms

Who could resist opening an e-mail message with the subject line “ILOVEYOU”? In 2000, enough people couldn’t resist to allow a Phillippines-launched virus to round the world in a day, infecting a reported 50 million computers, crashing systems, overwriting files and causing between $5 billion and $10 billion in damages.

Other worms and viruses would follow, wreaking havoc on a worldwide scale: Anna Kornikova, Code Red, Nimda, SQL Slammer, Storm. They demonstrated the destructive value of social engineering, the vulnerability of default settings, the inherent insecurities of operating systems and applications, and the fact that however much the good guys cleaned up, the bad guys were a couple steps ahead.

The trend spawned explosive growth in the antivirus industry, and, more ominously, a new generation of hacker out for financial gain rather than programming notoriety.

7. Linux/Open source/Mozilla

It wasn’t the first. But when Linus Torvalds began developing the Linux kernel in 1991, he created what would arguably become the rallying point of the free and open source software movement. Trying to create a commercial-free UNIX-like operating system, Torvalds took advantage of code developed for its predecessor GNU (which stood for, “GNU’s Not Unix”). Linux adopted GNU’s general public licence, making the code free to use, as long as what was developed was released under a similar licence.

Linux and its open source kin are now serious competitors to Microsoft products in the enterprise space, governments are debating mandatory open source for public service contracts, and commercial distributions abound. But open source’s real significance my lie in the community of developers and the pool of reusable code they’ve created.

8. Dot-com boom and bust

When it looks too good to be true, it usually is. But after all, it was the New Economy. In the late 1990s, investors poured money into Internet-related businesses, often businesses with no revenue stream or even credible business plan. The tech-heavy NASDAQ stock exchanged punched through the 5,000 mark. Then, something happened.

It’s hard to pin the collapse of the Internet economy in the spring of 2000 on any one source, but the crash that followed practically wiped out the sector, and dozens of infrastructure companies who’d invested in the fibre they gambled would be needed to keep up with the explosive growth.

When the dust settled, giants like eBay and Amazon were still standing; others were absorbed by old-economy businesses; and the seeds were planted for a second run at the Internet economy: Web 2.0.

9. TJX and the legacy of paranoia

All it took was an insecure Wi-Fi connection. For two years, TJX Companies Inc. — owner of retail outlets including Winners, HomeSense and TJ Maxx – was unaware that a group of identity thieves was mining the company’s system for credit and debit card information of its customers. The breach was discovered in December 2006, but not made public until the following January. By March, the number of compromised records had reached was conservatively estimated at almost 46 million.

Eleven men were eventually charged with the crime. The uproar forced governments to look at legislation making retailers responsible for the loss of customer data and impose stricter reporting regimens when a company’s customer information is exposed in a system breach.

The TJX debacle stood as the largest customer data breach ever, until an August 2009 attack on Heartland Payment Systems, which compromised 130 million records. One man, Albert Gonzalez, pleaded guilty to masterminding both operations.

10. Archie and the search engine economy

In 1990, a trio of students at McGill University in Montreal wrote a utility for indexing the content on FTP sites. Archie – “archive” without the “v” – is generally acknowledged to be the first search engine for the Internet.

It has since been displaced by more efficient, easier to use Web-based tools, but without Archie, the Internet wouldn’t be the accessible, useful tool it is for billions of users worldwide; it would still be the province of academics and gearheads.

And there wouldn’t be the new economy that’s grown up around search. How valuable is that? Ask Microsoft, Google and Yahoo, when they have time to stop trying to eat each others’ lunch.


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