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Microsoft: Malware for Windows on the rise

Attack of the killer password stealers

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Malware and unwanted software made strides in the first half of 2008, according to the latest security intelligence report from Microsoft, which tallied a 43 percent increase in the number of programs exorcised by the the company's malicious software removal tool.

In the first six months of this year, there were some 62 million disinfections on 23.8 million machines, according to the report which was published Monday. In the second half of last year, 42 million programs were removed on 15 million computers. Because it runs on hundreds of millions of machines worldwide, Microsoft's MSRT, or malicious software removal tool, functions as something of a bellwether for the state of successful attacks affecting Windows computers.

The increase was driven in part by the addition of new strains of malware that the MSRT checks for, said Jeff Williams, principal architect for the Microsoft Malware Protection Center. Win32/Taterf, a family of worms that steals login credentials for a host of online games, was one such addition and was removed 2.7 million times.

Other causes included the growing aggressiveness of established malware families. Win32/Zlob, a trojan that has bedeviled Windows users for years, was removed 7.5 million times.

The report "tells us that people still don't understand the level of threat, that perhaps they don't think they're a target," Williams told The Register.

The MSRT runs once a month during installation of Microsoft's monthly security patches. When malware is found, users are notified of the disinfection, and anonymized data is relayed back to Microsoft.

Microsoft's report, which is designed to act as a snap shot of the changing threat landscape, also showed a 13 percent industry-wide rise in the number of reported vulnerabilities rated as high severity by the common vulnerability scoring system. The figure included vulnerabilities in software made by Microsoft as well as third-party companies. The increase came even as the overall number of vulnerabilities decreased 4 percent compared with the second half of 2007.

Microsoft's data also showed that 90 percent of the reported vulnerabilities affected applications, rather than operating systems.

No doubt, long-time Microsoft critics will view the report as proof that the company's software is riddled with weaknesses that make users hopelessly vulnerable to the net's more nefarious elements. We see it a bit differently. To us, the data is evidence that users who use a firewall and anti-virus program and patch both Windows and third-party applications religiously aren't at much more risk than users of other platforms.

More importantly, it shows Microsoft's willingness to openly acknowledge the giant elephant in the room, that being the threat that every computer user faces a host of threats each time he logs on. This isn't something vendors such as Apple have dared to admit. At least not yet. ®

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