UK town a global contender in bot battle

If you told residents of Winsford, England, that their personal computers had been turned into an invisible electronic army, they’d probably think you’re mad.

But the 33,000-person town in northwest part of the country reportedly has one of the highest rates of computers infected with programs that receive and respond to commands from other remote computers. These “bot” networks can then be used by attackers to perform DOS (denial of service) attacks on other computers and act as spam generators.

According to Symantec Corp.’s Internet Security Threat Report released earlier this month, the small town of Winsford had 5 percent of the world’s infected computers, second only behind London at 8 percent and ahead of Seoul at 4 percent. Overall, the U.K. had about one-third of the 1 million to 2 million infected computers worldwide, Symantec reported.

Symantec speculated in a March report that the size of a city and the rate of broadband growth are related to the number of computers infected by bots. The rapid expansion of broadband facilitates the distribution of malicious software, including bots, it said.

But why would Winsford — a town that initially developed because of the salt mining industry — hold rank with London and Seoul, two cities with populations many, many times greater than its own?

IP (Internet Protocol) addresses affected by bot infections tend to be linked to areas where broadband providers have a heavy concentration of provisioning services, wrote Symantec spokeswoman Katherine James in an e-mail response to a query. It doesn’t necessarily reflect on the number of physical PCs that have infections, although those affected are likely to be in the area.

“With Winsford being ranked as one of the most highly-infected cities, this gives a very clear idea of the growth in broadband provision and the effect this can have on infections in that particular geographical area,” James wrote. “It is the growth in broadband provision and the consequences of this that is key.”

Calls to several computer repair shops didn’t result in any hard facts on the number of computers in the Winsford area.

“You couldn’t have picked a more unlikely spot,” said one employee at a computer-security firm in Winsford, while laughing hysterically. People in Winsford have “barely heard of computers,” he said.

Not the sort of answer you’d expect to hear from someone in the IT business. In fact, Winsford isn’t totally behind the times at all, and the growth of cable broadband in the area — and the security troubles that go along with it — is probably a major factor, said Robin Crorie, director of Inrucan Ltd., a computer consulting firm in Nantwich, about 11 miles from Winsford.

People have computers but a low awareness of the kind of threats that they face from viruses and scanning, Crorie said. “The sort of attitude would be ‘Who cares?'” he said.

Unless those users see some malady on their screens, “they don’t understand” the problem, Crorie said.

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