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Networks of of compromised PCs are threatening the smooth operation of the internet, the World Economic Forum was told this week.

Up to a quarter of online computers are virus-infected components in botnet networks of PCs under the control of hackers, according to net luminary Vint Cerf. Cerf, who co-developed the TCP/IP protocol, compared the spread of botnets to a disease that has reached "pandemic" proportions.

Cerf estimated that between 100 million and 150 million of the 600 million PCs on the internet are under the control of hackers, the BBC reports. "Despite all that, the net is still working, which is pretty amazing. It's pretty resilient," he said.

Cerf made his comments during a panel discussion on the future of the internet at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week. During the debate, security columnist John Markoff, of the New York Times said one particular botnet attack consumed 15 per cent of Yahoo's search capacity for a brief period. The goal of the attack was to retrieve text snippets that were used in a attempt to disguise junk mail messages in a bid to smuggle spam past filters.

Other members of the panel including Michael Dell, founder of Dell computers, and Hamadoun Toure, secretary general of the International Telecommunication Union, agreed there was a pressing need to solve the problem. Improved operating system security and user authentication might help in this, but no "silver bullet" solution emerged during the discussion. Dell suggested greater use of network computers, or as he put it "disposal virtual PCs", might reduce the problem. Toure said greater co-operation between regulators, government, security firms, telecom providers, and end users was needed.

Botnets of compromised PCs are used by hackers for purposes such as relaying spam and launching denial of service attacks against targeted websites. In most cases users are blissfully unaware of infection, perhaps only noticing a slight degradation in performance. The problem is well recognised in internet security circles and among ISPs.

Intelligence from either the sale of access to botnet resources on the internet or from ISP takedown efforts suggests groups of 50,000 or so compromised PCs or smaller are common, by which reckoning Cerf's figures seem rather high. ®

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