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April 2007 Online Archives

Wed Apr 25, 2007

The Zombies Are Coming — And They Are You!

I have insomnia. It's because I can't stop thinking about the zombies. They're taking over, you know. They're everywhere! What's worse is that you may have already become one of them. You may be a zombie!

I'm not talking science fiction here, although it is nearly as scary. I'm talking about zombie computers. They're taking over the Internet. And, if you are not diligently -- even aggressively -- taking measures to prevent it, your computer may have already been converted into a zombie.

"So what is a zombie computer?" you say, "and why should I care?" A zombie computer is a computer that has been infected by malicious software which enables it to be controlled by someone other than its owner. That's right! Once your computer becomes a zombie, it is no longer entirely under your control. It can be taught to do things that are not nice, like sending spam, generating pop-up ads or stealing your personal information.

Think for a moment. Has your computer been misbehaving lately? Has it been hesitant to respond to your will? Has it outright refused to obey your commands? Has it been running oh, so slowwwwly? While many problems can precipitate such behavior, one of the more common maladies is a malicious software download. Such a download can be accomplished through infection by a virus such as a trojan horse, or it may be by your own hand. As an example, have you recently downloaded that new, cool toolbar your friend told you about?

Many toolbars embed spyware on a host computer, and they can be incredibly hard buggers to remove. Spyware frequently carries with it a means to reinfect a host computer should any attempt be made to remove it. This mechanism is deliberately hidden in some location on your hard drive that is not obvious, or it is embedded within an operating system file so that it cannot be easily removed. Such a mechanism is referred to as a program stub; it is essentially a tiny bootstrap loader which can call a remote location over the Internet to reload the complete program.

Getting rid of such a stubborn program may cause endless hours of frustration and could cost big bucks! The best solution is to not allow this stuff onto your computer in the first place. You do this by becoming computer literate and by insuring that your computer has up-to-date firewall, antivirus and anti-spyware protection.

So what dangers do zombie computers pose to Internet users? Aside from the very real risk of identity theft through techniques such as keystroke logging, zombie computers can be instructed to substitute bogus ads on your computer screen in place of those actually appearing on websites. This practice robs webmasters of the income they require to provide you with services, and may cheapen the appearance of the websites you visit. (Flashing or bouncing ads are often bogus, and are at the least very irritating and unprofessional.) Zombies can also launch pop-up ads; you know how much we love those!

In addition to the aforementioned nasties, zombie programs are often set to run with a high priority, which results in a dramatic slowdown of any computer upon which they are resident. The reduction in speed can be so apparent that an individual with an infected computer may actually pay money to have their computer serviced or may buy replacement components, believing the problem to be hardware-related.

Zombie computers are one of the leading sources of Internet spam. If your computer is used to send spam emails, you may find your email services blocked by your internet service provider (ISP). Your own email address book may be used to generate this spam, or may be harvested so that it can be sold to other spammers. (Wouldn't your friends just love you if they found out you had "given" their email addresses away to spammers?) The voluminous proliferation of spam hogs bandwidth, which ultimately slows down the Internet for everyone.

A much more targeted Internet slowdown can be achieved when zombie computers are used en masse to flood a specific website with requests. This practice is known as a denial of service (DOS) attack. A DOS attack can bring a website server to its knees, slowing it to a state in which it is unable to respond to any legitimate request or even causing it to crash. The only way to recover from an ambitious DOS attack may be for the webmaster to take the website or server completely off line until the attack subsides. If the site is informational in nature, this results in a loss of credibility; if it is commercial, the merchant may lose both revenue and customers.

As you can see, there are many compelling reasons to prevent your computer from becoming a zombie. As zombie computers proliferate, the very life of the Internet could be threatened. Become an Internet Warrior by battling the zombies! Install antivirus and anti-spyware software on your computer, keep it up-to-date, and install a software or hardware firewall. Doing these things will help your computer to perform at its best and will make the Internet a friendlier and more enjoyable place for all.

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Posted by: The Spidermaster on Apr 25, 07 | 7:30 am | Profile

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