One of the most insidious worms of all time made its debut Nov. 21, 2008, and it’s still alive and kicking today. Conficker continues to spread, thanks to installations of the beloved but now out-of-support Windows XP. Eleven million devices and counting, the worm’s continued virility has led some researchers to dub it a “zombie.”
The world had plenty of notice about Conficker. Microsoft released the necessary Windows XP security patch in October 2008, 29 days before the worm began to spread. But, well, you know how easy it is to be lax about running automatic updates. Conficker caused major international disruption, grounding French fighter planes, infecting machines at the U.K. Ministry of Defense, and leading the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to fund a Conficker Working Group. It’s estimated more than $9 billion has been spent on Conficker cleanup. Microsoft offered a $250,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of Conficker’s creators—but to date, it’s understood to have never been paid.
Zombie worm? Conficker has infected 11 million devices since Nov. 21, 2008, and continues to spread
The frightening potential of Conficker
Conficker didn’t lived up to its potential, thankfully, and likely that’s because its potential was so frightening. (One security expert likened it to a “digital Pearl Harbor.”) The morphing worm ties computers into a botnet that can accept directions from an unknown master, directions issued from one of 250 ever-changing domains. But those directions never came. With so much attention from authorities, it’s likely the worm became too “hot” for its creators to fully exploit, and their identities are still unknown. (They left one clue: An early version of Conficker checked to see whether a machine had a Ukrainian keyboard, and if it did, the worm didn’t infect the machine.)
Today, Conficker remains most contagious in hospitals, of all places, where medical devices such as MRI machines frequently run older versions of Windows—and are a favorite target of hackers seeking medical information to sell on the dark web.
Tech Time Warp is a weekly feature that looks back at interesting moments and milestones in tech history.