In a windowless room on Microsoft’s campus here, T. J. Campana, a cybercrime investigator, connects an unprotected computer running an early version of Windows XP to the Internet. In about 30 seconds the computer is “owned.”
An automated program lurking on the Internet has remotely taken over the PC and turned it into a “zombie.” That computer and other zombie machines are then assembled into systems called “botnets” — home and business PCs that are hooked together into a vast chain of cyber-robots that do the bidding of automated programs to send the majority of e-mail spam, to illegally seek financial information and to install malicious software on still more PCs.
Botnet attacks now come with their own antivirus software, permitting the programs to take over a computer and then effectively remove other malware competitors. Mr. Campana said the Microsoft investigators were amazed recently to find a botnet that turned on the Microsoft Windows Update feature after taking over a computer, to defend its host from an invasion of competing infections.