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The year in technology

Online scams soared, but the news wasn’t all bad in 2004. MSNBC's Bob Sullivan looks at the year in technology.

Technology proved a mixed blessing in 2004, taking three steps forward and two steps back --maybe even two and a half steps back. Biometrics were supposed to make our borders safer; but chip-enabled visas and the US-VISIT fingerprinting program raised just as many questions as they answered. Online banking soared and so did online fraud.

The year's biggest Internet story was the phishing epidemic, which exploded in 2004. In the first part of the year, attempts to steal personal information via fraudulent e-mail rose 20 to 30 percent each month, according the Anti-Phishing Working Group.  Gartner analyst Avivah Litan released a survey showing that perhaps 2 million people had given away personal information to a phisher during one 12-month stretch. During the same time period, there were about $1.2 billion in unauthorized banking transfers, suggesting phishing was having a major impact.

It all raised the question: Can you trust e-mail anymore? Apparently not.  Another study showed consumers no longer could reliably tell the difference between real e-mail and scam e-mail.

Biometrics and broadband
Technology woes touched the Department of Homeland Security, too. The 9-11 Commission Report was light on identity theft issues, but did include a controversial suggestion to create national standards for identity cards.

Still, hard ideas for solving America's identity crisis were hard to come by. Electronic passports and visas, along with the US-VISIT fingerprint program, are the beginnings of biometric ID cards for both citizens and visitors. But the programs were criticized from all sides. Civil libertarians objected, technologists said the system was flawed and other nations were affronted.

Meanwhile, it seems no one wants to be the nation’s top cybercop. Amit Yoran, director of the National Cyber Security Division of the Department of Homeland Security, resigned in October.  He had been responsible for implementing the Bush Administration's National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace. But his departure, the third in two years from that position, raised the question: Is the task of securing cyber America simply too thankless, or too hard?

The quietest story of the year: Finally, there are more broadband Internet users that dial-up Internet users in the United States. Of course, this was supposed to happen years ago, but better late than never. Now that it's here, the Internet’s full promise isn’t far behind. Streaming video will soon be more than a novelty.

Viruses and spam
Each year brings its summary of virulent malicious programs, but in 2004 viruses became big business as well. No longer was virus writing just for pimple-faced teens.

Virus writers make money now, infecting thousands, perhaps millions of computers with Trojan horses, and hijacking them to send spam or commit other crimes. Cybercitizens must now wonder each time they connect to the Net: Is their computer a criminal?

Speaking of spam: The year began with enactment of the Can-Spam Act and ended with America Online announcing spam headed for its customers was down 75 percent. In between, an awful lot of spam was sent -- in fact, perhaps three-quarters of all e-mail now flying around is an unwanted marketing message. That battle rages on.

The biggest viruses of the year: MyDoom, released in January. At one point, 1 in every 12 e-mails flying around the Internet were infected, and some reports indicated the entire Web slowed down as a result. The Netsky virus, and its seemingly endless variants, also pestered computers users all year -- and was declared the year's worst pest by antivirus firm Sophos. At one point, a gang-like battle broke out among virus writers with e-mail users as the innocent bystanders. The Sasser worm also wreaked havoc, but that brought some unexpected good news: aided in part by a Microsoft bounty, authorities nabbed the 18-year-old German allegedly responsible.

Sometimes, important computers broke without the help of a virus writer.  A bad program at Comair Airline ruined the holidays for thousands of travelers, grounding 1,100 flights. An old program was blamed.  The Comair computer glitch should have us all concerned. It’s not the first time. In May, another glitch grounded 40 Delta Air Lines flights. American and US Airways flights were delayed in August after another computer-related slip-up. Should such bugs really be able to ground an airline?

iPod nation
On the other hand, technology continued to liberate music lovers in 2004. The legend of Apple's iPod continued to grow. The firm's forte -- designing beautiful and functional technology -- has finally found the right market. Is there anyone left who doesn't have an iPod after Christmas?  A look at Apple's stock price suggests that's not really a joke.

Geeks enjoyed election-day victories, too. The much-maligned electronic voting machines performed admirably, after a full year of doomsday predictions.  Critics were left struggling to find examples to support the danger posed by the machines -- albeit there seemed still a lack of common sense about the need for a paper receipt to hand voters as they leave the booth so they know what happened inside, just as most people still enjoy a passing glance at their ATM receipts as they walk away from a cash withdrawal. 

And finally, blogging came of age in 2004. Bloggers seemed largely responsible for Dan Rather's demise, a sign of just how far they've come.  Howard Dean's dramatic rise and fall was largely the doing of Web users.  History books will call Dean the first real Internet candidate, and call 2004 the first real Internet election.  Sometimes, in the middle of the revolution, it's hard to see: The Web has come very far, very fast.