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Corporations, agencies hit by ‘botnet’ virus

By Jordan Robertson
Associated Press / February 19, 2010

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SAN FRANCISCO - Security specialists have found a network of 74,000 virus-infected computers that stole information from inside corporations and government agencies. The unusual thing about the incident is not that it happened but that it was discovered, and it is a reminder of the dangers of having computers with sensitive data connected to the open Internet.

More than 2,400 organizations, including financial institutions and energy companies and federal agencies, were infiltrated by the “botnet,’’ according to the NetWitness Corp. security firm, which discovered it.

NetWitness didn’t name the companies or agencies whose computers were compromised. The Wall Street Journal said the affected companies included Merck & Co., Cardinal Health Inc., Paramount Pictures, and Juniper Networks Inc. Merck said in a statement yesterday that one computer in the company was among those in the botnet but no sensitive information was taken. The other three companies didn’t return messages from The Associated Press seeking comment yesterday.

The victims don’t appear to have been specifically targeted, unlike the recent computer attacks on Google Inc. that prompted the Internet search leader to threaten to pull its business out of China.

That’s an important distinction, because it shows how online secrets can fall into the wrong hands even when criminals aren’t necessarily looking for them.

“This kind of stuff is out there and it’s pervasive,’’ said Amit Yoran, the chief executive of NetWitness and former cybersecurity chief at the Department of Homeland Security. Parts of the botnet discovered by his firm likely are still active. He said the network appears to be run from computers in Eastern Europe and China, but it’s not certain the perpetrators are there.

Botnets are networks of poisoned PCs remotely controlled by hackers and that behave like their criminal robots. The PCs are often infected when their owners visit bad websites or open malicious e-mail attachments.

Botnets are a major tool for cybercrime. They help criminals amass troves of stolen data that they can sell on the black market or use for their own schemes, such as yanking money from victims’ bank accounts.

The biggest on record is the one created by the Conficker worm. That infected anywhere from 3 million to 12 million PCs running Microsoft Corp.’s Windows operating system and is still active.

The botnet NetWitness discovered used malicious software called “ZeuS’’ that steals passwords and other online credentials.

It’s primarily focused on poaching Internet banking credentials and is well known in the security community.

The fact that so many companies and government agencies were hit generally appears to have been incidental.

Yoran said the attackers were targeting specific information rather than specific organizations.