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Net pioneer predicts overwhelming botnet surge

A quarter of all Net-connected PCs could become infected by Trojans, Vint Cerf tells World Economic Forum attendees.

Internet pioneer Vint Cerf has warned high-powered attendees at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that the Internet is at serious risk from botnets.

Vast networks of compromised PCs, used by criminals for sending spam and spyware and for launching denial-of-service attacks, are reported to be growing at an alarming rate in terms of their potential. Cerf, now an employee of Google, warned that they could undermine the future of the Internet and likened their spread to a pandemic.

Cerf predicted that a quarter of all PCs currently connected to the Internet--around 150 million-- that covertly seize control of a computer and its broadband connection, handing control of both to criminals in remote locations.

According to Mark Sunner, chief security analyst at MessageLabs, Cerf's words of warning are far from scaremongering and the picture is at least as serious as Cerf paints it.

Sunner said that around the turn of the year security experts were watching one botnet, called Spam Thru, which not only had its own antivirus protection to clear other botnets off "its patch," but had the potential to be 10 times more productive than most other botnets while evading detection because of built-in defenses.

The most worrying thing about Spam Thru, he suspects, is that a major spike in traffic toward the end of 2006 was merely a testing of the waters and that much worse could be to come--particularly when other similarly sophisticated botnets appear online.

"With new levels of sophistication this has reached a real milestone," Sunner added. "Botnets are getting smaller, more stealthy and more discreet and yet the volumes of spam are going up.

"Without a hint of scaremongering, will this get a lot worse throughout 2007 in terms of botnet sending? Absolutely, yes."

Will Sturgeon of Silicon.com reported from London.