Seven Minutes from Catastrophe
Take precautions, or risk disaster
In the movies, virus labs are deeply scary. Scientists in environment suits peer into microscopes. Nothing gets in and nothing gets out. It's a race against time to find the cure to the latest outbreak.
It's the same thing at Sophos's Virus Lab (apart from the breathing apparatus) but instead of Ebola, they fight Netsky, Witty and Blaster. The antivirus company is based in Abingdon and their secure lab is separated from the rest of the building by a forbidding glass curtain wall and a locked door.
Inside dozens of engineers wrestle with up to 1,000 new virus variants a month. The number of strains is increasing because virus writers have released the code to some of the most destructive nasties online. You can even find them using Google. This means that anyone with a basic knowledge of programming can create their own handcrafted piece of malware.
One of the most insidious problems is the internet worm. This is a virus that spreads from computer to computer directly over the internet. You don't need to open a file, browse a website or install anything to catch one - just leave an unprotected computer connected to the net.
I saw a demonstration of the power of these vicious programs. Three computers were linked together to create a honey pot to deliberately catch an infection. The first computer was the 'sacrificial goat,' running Microsoft Windows XP but without a firewall, antivirus software or the latest updates. The second computer was a firewall to stop it infecting any other computers and the third was a database program that logged internet activity.
The computers were booted up and connected to Sophos's dirty net (the network connection that is linked to the rest of the internet without any kind of protection). Within seven minutes a worm appeared on the victim computer and started searching the internet for more computers to infect. Within 22 minutes a second worm had found us.
Once infected, your computer is wide open. They can use your computer to send spam, attack other computers or scan for credit card numbers. Sophos reckon that, without protection, you have a 90% probability of being infected within an hour.
"Many viruses spread because of the bug's in people's brain, which are much harder to disinfect," says Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos. "People still click on attachments that promise pictures of Anna Kournikova. Viruses are an everyday problem - not just when they appear on the ten o'clock news."
He has four main recommendations: