Commentary: Computer Explosion Equals Virus Explosion

China serves as a shining example of the side effects of massive computerization. New users buy computers but don't know how to use them safely.

Every day each of us is inundated with a flood of new information regarding computer threats. The flood of viruses is inexhaustible; in fact it is ever-increasing. This steady increase can be attributed to several factors. As a result, virus writers are roaming around the global Internet at will.

However, the most dangerous aspect of this situation is the annual loss inflicted on the world economy by malicious programs. This despite how preventive and protective measures are strengthened and improved daily. The reason: IT threats are also becoming more and more sophisticated.

Slammer, the Internet worm that raced around the world in January 2003, is a prime example of this newer, more sophisticated malware. Slammer was equipped with cutting-edge search capabilities, which enable the worm to circle the world in only ten minutes. This was a new record for cyber-infections. The results were dramatic, to say the least. Many networks crashed, even entire segments of the Internet were fragmented. Today, the losses resulting from the Slammer attack have been estimated at over a billion dollars.

However, such sophisticated and high-tech viruses are exceptions, since their creation requires significant resources, time, and qualified programming. Most malware today utilizes e-mail for propagation, thus depending on the "human factor" for effective infection rates.

In other words, they depend on the curious person who opens files attached to e-mails purporting to contain a Windows update or anti-virus programs, believing “after all, every vendor must have the addresses of all customers on file.” Or maybe it’s an e-mail containing the latest porn updates—who can resist? Perhaps it’s a greeting card from a friend! And before we know it, a new epidemic is launched only because people don’t follow basic computer security procedures.

China is a prime example of "human factor" IT issues. Even though it is the most populated country in the world, computerization has been slow to encompass Chinese society. Today, China is in the middle of a computer boom—all business processes are being computerized and hardware costs ensure that computers are available for everyone.

The positive effects of the boom are already obvious: the new IT market in China is flourishing, doubling or even tripling in size annually. All leading international IT vendors are active in China, while local competing vendors are providing stiff competition. In short, China is in the stage of intensive computerization, which means that many inexperienced users are buying their first computers. This is all very well and good, but … there is one real problem.

According to Sinhua, China’s largest news agency, almost 80 percent of personal computers in China are infected with some kind of malware. The Chinese government organized a special investigation that unearthed theses statistics. The Ministry of National Security believes that computer viruses are the most serious danger for Chinese networks today. They confirmed that files downloaded from the Internet, questionable Web sites, and e-mail attachments are the main sources of infection. These propagation channels are exactly the channels most dependent on the actions of the unsophisticated end user.

China serves as a shining example of the side effects of massive computerization. Many people are buying computers, but do they really know how to use them safely? In China, people still need to learn about safe computing. Safe computing entails much more than buying the necessary hardware and software. There are set rules of behavior that help prevent virus penetration. Unfortunately, most Chinese are unaware of these rules, which have lead to a disproportionate amount of infected machines in the country.

Fortunately, the Chinese government is aware of the gap between the available technology and the lack of informed users. In fact, the government has initiated a program for eradicating this issue. China has become the first country in the world to include anti-virus security as part of its national security strategy. A special section of the National Police will be responsible for anti-virus security.

The Chinese government takes anti-virus security seriously, so it turned to various international resources for additional expertise. Kaspersky Labs CEO Natalya Kasperky spoke at the Virus Security Conference held in October 2003. As a result, several important agreements were signed. Kaspersky Labs will join forces with the Virus Security unit of the Chinese National Police in maintaining a virus database, as well as creating a virus research center. This center will support virus research and the development of anti-virus protection. [Editor's Note: the author is head of anti-virus research at Kaspersky Labs.]

China demonstrates that computer viruses can easily become a national security issue, unless preventive measures are implemented on time. The Chinese government has shown serious interest in this area, having even established a special research center. It will be interesting to see what a similar survey would uncover in Russia? It may well be that the results will be equally "impressive".

About the Author

Eugene Kaspersky head of Anti-Virus research at Kaspersky Lab. He is a member of the Computer Anti-virus Researchers' Organization (CARO), among whose members are the world's leading anti-virus experts.