A new digital plague has hit the Internet, infecting millions of personal and business computers in what seems to be the first step of a multistage attack. The world’s leading computer security experts do not yet know who programmed the infection, or what the next stage will be.
In recent weeks a worm, a malicious software program, has swept through corporate, educational and public computer networks around the world. Known as Conficker or Downadup, it is spread by a recently discovered Microsoft Windows vulnerability, by guessing network passwords and by hand-carried consumer gadgets like USB keys.
Experts say it is the worst infection since the Slammer worm exploded through the Internet in January 2003, and it may have infected as many as nine million personal computers around the world.
Worms like Conficker not only ricochet around the Internet at lightning speed, they harness infected computers into unified systems called botnets, which can then accept programming instructions from their clandestine masters. “If you’re looking for a digital Pearl Harbor, we now have the Japanese ships steaming toward us on the horizon,” said Rick Wesson, chief executive of Support Intelligence, a computer security consulting firm based in San Francisco.
Many computer users may not notice that their machines have been infected, and computer security researchers said they were waiting for the instructions to materialize, to determine what impact the botnet will have on PC users. It might operate in the background, using the infected computer to send spam or infect other computers, or it might steal the PC user’s personal information.
“I don’t know why people aren’t more afraid of these programs,” said Merrick L. Furst, a computer scientist at Georgia Tech. “This is like having a mole in your organization that can do things like send out any information it finds on machines it infects.”
Microsoft rushed an emergency patch to defend the Windows operating systems against this vulnerability in October, yet the worm has continued to spread even as the level of warnings has grown in recent weeks.
Earlier this week, security researchers at Qualys, a Silicon Valley security firm, estimated that about 30 percent of Windows-based computers attached to the Internet remain vulnerable to infection because they have not been updated with the patch, despite the fact that it was made available in October. The firm’s estimate is based on a survey of nine million Internet addresses.
Security researchers said the success of Conficker was due in part to lax security practices by both companies and individuals, who frequently do not immediately install updates.
Comment: Corporate Network security is probably completely on top of this. If you have a Windows PC ... make sure all patches are in place and that you have antivirus software (current) in place.