Everybody remembers Y2K. Some experts predicted that the inability of some computer programs to handle dates after January 1, 2000 would have a huge impact on civilization.

Some less-than-grounded people even went so far as to warn that civilization would essentially collapse. I recall reports of individuals loading up on food, water and ammo. I hope they had receipts and got refunds.

If we’ve had an ‘e-scare‘ since Y2K, the newest variant of the Conficker computer worm that has been all over the news lately might be it. It’s programmed to activate tomorrow on April Fool’s Day and everyone is wondering: who will play the role of fool?

First discovered in October of last year, Conficker takes advantage of a Windows exploit that has since been patched but that many computers are still vulnerable to due to you guessed it: lack of awareness and laziness. Some estimates peg the number of computers that have been affected at upwards of 10 million.

When the Confickr.C variant of the worm activates on April 1, it will generate a list of 50,000 URLs daily from which it could pull instructions or additional malware. Just what those instructions might contain or what new malware downloaded would do is unknown, which is part of the reason Conficker has attracted so much attention from security experts and the media.

Will Conficker launch a massive cyberattack, steal millions of passwords for cybercriminals or will it prove to be a poor April Fool’s joke? By this time tomorrow, we just might start to have answers.

In the meantime, what Conficker has already proven is that increasingly sophisticated malware creators have the ability to wreak havoc on the internet. Even if Conficker fizzles, millions of people have been impacted by Conficker already and countless millions of dollars have surely been spent trying to prevent the possible worst-case scenario that has been laid out. That’s something that certainly hasn’t been lost on other malware creators and cybercriminals.

Obviously, the internet isn’t going to shut down tomorrow and civilization will go on as usual but if we’re to keep the internet economy from being threatened by these types of scares on a regular basis in the future, it’s clear that software vendors like Microsoft, sysadmins, consumers and businesses alike have a lot of work to do.

To do your part, make sure you’re patched. And for more information about Conficker, check out News.com’s FAQ.

Photo credit: Nate Steiner via Flickr.