Virus map paints U.S. red

In a new map of the world showing the prevalence of computer viruses, North America sticks out like a sore, infected thumb.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
2 min read
In a new map of the world showing the prevalence of computer viruses, North America sticks out like a sore, infected thumb.

The map, posted by antivirus company McAfee.com, indicates the intensity of computer virus activity in deepening shades of red. The map can show the viral activity during the past 24 hours, the past week or the past month. It can also show the number of computers or files infected.

North America, Australia, Sweden and Chile radiate hues of magenta and crimson. The former Soviet Union and most of the African continent appear virtually untouched in a pale beige.

Does a geographic breakdown of computer viruses make sense in a global network, when a virus can travel as easily from the Philippines to Silicon Valley as it can across the street?

"The purpose of the map was to serve as a real-time information-gathering tool," said Sam Curry, security architect for McAfee.com. "We watch viruses like I Love You or Melissa, and we see a wave of red going around the world as people turn on their computers in the morning. It is a tool people could use, like a weather map, so they can see what is happening out there."

The McAfee map has obvious limitations. Countries with few computers can be expected to have few computer viruses, for example, thus explaining the swath of beige covering developing countries. In addition, computers that don't use McAfee software aren't included.

Still, McAfee defended the map as more than a marketing gimmick, saying it can serve as an early-warning system in extreme cases, when a virus begins propagating in one geographic region and follows the sun around the globe.

The most salient characteristic of geography for the antivirus crowd, according to Curry, is the time zone.

"The geographical map makes sense because people's behavior still goes according to the human clock," Curry said. "They eat in the evening, wake up in the morning, check their e-mail at certain times, go to work--that's why time zones matter."

At the time it was launched, the McAfee.com map reflected information gleaned from nearly 39 billion files. McAfee customers voluntarily send their data back to the company to be analyzed for viral presence; 20 percent of computers were found to be infected worldwide.

Curry warned against using the map to try to escape the scourge of computer viruses.

"Threats are not geographically determined," Curry said. "We can track trends, but you're not safer in areas where there are fewer attacks. This is not an incentive to move your data center to sub-Saharan Africa."

McAfee.com isn't the only antivirus company with a virus map. TrendMicro offers one of its own, which, a company representative pointed out, launched in December 1999.