Russian anti-virus guru Eugene Kaspersky does a quick calculation in his head as he blinks at the ceiling.Satisfied, he announces: "About 200000."
That's the number of virus-infected computers in a targeted attack on SA's internet infrastructure that would shut it off from the rest of the world. No e-mail. No electronic transactions. No web searches. No e-government. No Skype, Twitter or Facebook. Nothing.
And 200000 rogue computers is not a huge number. Organised syndicates or loners with modest technical know-how and resources can harness millions of virus-infected machines they effectively control to add muscle to their efforts - from stealing money and identities to managing online corporate espionage or collapsing the infrastructure and function of a country's economy and government.
Kaspersky is CEO and founder of Kaspersky Lab, one of the world's top four anti-virus software companies and Europe's biggest. Worldwide, the software anti-virus industry is worth about $7-billion a year in profit for firms in the sector. His fortune is estimated at $800-million and Forbes rates him as Russia's 125th-richest person. He was in SA to talk to business executives and security experts about the rising cybercrime threat to business, governments and organisations of all types.
"There are literally millions of computer viruses in the wild," he says. "Last year alone we collected 20million of them. Most are variations on a theme and can be dealt with automatically in our labs. However, there are teams of experts at anti-virus organisations around the world that work against new threats round the clock. Once a virus is discovered, it can be reverse-engineered and countered with an antidote pretty quickly," says Kaspersky.
He worries about the ability of viruses, or malware (malicious software) to perform increasingly sophisticated and sinister attacks. Typically, these are denial of service (DOS) assaults using networks of computers infected by malware to bring down websites or online services by bombarding them with data. People who control these botnets can trigger a destructive payload at will.
The 2007 Estonian attack showed a botnet with enough resources could shut down banks, government departments, education networks, the media - just about any organisation with an online presence.
DOS attacks are just one aspect of the destructiveness of modern malware. Malware can also help with identity theft and data theft. The damage can be devastating.
"Estimates put the cost to business of cybercrime at anything between $100-billion to $1-trillion," he says . "One of the reasons it's so hard to put a figure on it is organisations that have been compromised are reluctant to talk about it."
Another is they don't know about it. Data theft is big business but differs from other forms of pilfering in that the original data stays where it is while a copy is spirited away, often undetected, via the ether.
"Some businesses are aware and active in countering virus attacks. Banks, for example, now build losses from cybercrime into the cost of doing business - they have a budget for it which includes defending against it and compensating for it when breaches occur. Computer viruses have permeated every part of society," he says.
In August 2008, a Spanair airliner crashed just after taking off from Madrid. It was that year's deadliest aviation accident and 154 people died.
Kaspersky says the airline found the computer system used to monitor aircraft technical problems was infected with malware that probably prevented detection of a system failure.
Last year marked the appearance of the Stuxnet virus, a virus so complicated to produce and dispatch it was probably at least partly the work of, or funded by, a nation state. Speculation is Stuxnet's purpose was to sabotage an Iranian nuclear reactor, although it can damage a variety of industrial systems.
Computer viruses have come a long way since the first, written in 1982 by US schoolboy Rich Skrenta, 15. Called Elk Cloner and written for early Apple II systems, it replicated itself on floppy disks and displayed a poem, sometimes corrupting disks it infected.
Brain was the first virus to infect IBM PCs and was released in 1986. It was written by two Pakistani brothers and distributed with their medical software to prevent piracy. It replicated itself and slowed systems.
The advent of the commercial internet in the early 1990s provided the ideal vehicle to spread viruses.
More advanced techniques used by virus writers meant they could be used to do anything from data theft and identity fraud to corporate espionage, blackmail and extortion.
Kaspersky says a Swedish bank was attacked in February and the remote access Trojan fooled operators into thinking that the screens they were monitoring had been frozen by a Windows blue screen computer error.
"The first rule when this happens is don't touch anything. They didn't. But the machine wasn't frozen, the virus had generated the blue screen and was diverting funds in the background from a perfectly functioning system that the operators thought wasn't working.
"Now malware writers are using social networks like Facebook and Twitter to spread their work." Organisations were threatened from within by disgruntled staff or criminals as shown by malware found on organisations' computers not connected to the internet.
Kaspersky says the computer virus threat is on the rise and inadequately protected businesses are vulnerable.
"Cybercrime is an industry now. Governments are finding it difficult to fight it because any laws they make regarding cybercrime are difficult if not impossible to enforce in the online world where attacks may come from networks made up of computers in different countries.
"Even on home soil, laws are difficult to keep relevant as the nature of attacks change. And in Japan, for example, there's simply no law against writing computer viruses.
"Lack of understanding the real threat of viruses is a dangerous game for businesses and organisations of all sizes to play," he says.
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