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Time to grab your security blanket

By Rob McConnell

A recent survey by Deloitte ( ) has shown that 73% of large corporations and government departments are planning to cut their IT spending. Luckily, the majority are not willing to compromise on security.

I say luckily because the survey coincided with the news that almost two million PCs worldwide (including some in government networks) had been caught in the biggest botnet yet discovered.

A botnet is a network of remotely controlled (or “zombie”) computers responding to the commands of cyber criminals, after being infected with malicious software.

We don’t know which government departments were affected, but we do know that the software in question allowed the criminals to read email addresses, copy files, record keystrokes and send spam, or junk email messages.

Almost half the infected machines were in the US, and one was inside the BBC ( ).

The security firm Finjan ( ) traced the giant network back to a gang based in Ukraine. Incidentally, Finjan’s web site has a tool allowing you to test your own network’s vulnerabilities to attack, which is worth a try.

It’s not the only security concern that’s come to light in recent weeks.

The former Home Secretary, David Blunkett, told the Infosec annual conference ( www.infosec. ) that the 2012 Olympic Games could be disrupted by hackers.

Reports also suggested that the US power grid had been infiltrated from overseas. And security firms warn that cyber crime has increased sharply since the start of the recession.

In 2008, more viruses were discovered than in the previous five years combined.

It may shock you to discover that, according to , on any given day, 40% of the 800 million computers connected to the internet are bots.

Some will be bombarding other people with spam, but others are engaged in an increasingly prevalent aspect of online crime — extortion linked to denial of service attacks.

This scam involves demanding a ransom from the owners of high-traffic retail web sites, otherwise the network of bots will be instructed to visit the site all at the same time, thus crashing it.

Just in case you think spam is a lesser evil, it may again surprise you to know that 91% of the emails in the world are junk, up from 64% last June — that’s according to email specialists Cloudmark ( ).

So how do you know if your computers are at risk?

The first, and most basic answer, is that if you don’t have up-to-date antivirus software and a decent firewall, you are almost certainly under threat.

Even if you have both, they won’t necessarily detect the malware used by botnets.

It might be worth downloading a free safety program from the antivirus specialists AVG ( ), which works alongside Internet Explorer and Firefox and prevents them from downloading any web page on which it detects a problem.

Don’t, however, install two antivirus programs on the same system, or they will see each other as a threat.

You can configure your email system to reject or quarantine messages with web links or pictures in them, although this can affect legitimate emails too.

And you can change network settings to prevent file sharing.

There is also an increasing collection of software products designed specifically to combat botnet threats, including Symantec’s Webgate (|products/botnets.htm )

If you’re reading this smug in the knowledge that your company only uses Macs, it has been reported in the past few weeks that the first Mac botnet has been activated — see www.macworld.

The main problem with malware infection, to quote one security specialist, is that it’s like having a disease you can’t feel.

Unless the compromised code is hogging bandwidth or processing power, most users won’t even notice it.

So the only foolproof way of answering the question above is to have your system tested for the effectiveness of existing software and to see if there is any unauthorised traffic or extra programs lurking among the legitimate ones.

There’s a useful video tutorial on every aspect of botnets on this site:

Rob McConnell is regional director for SQS NI. ( ). His e-mail address is

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