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One in six Windows PCs worldwide are hooked up to the internet with no basic security software, according to a study by McAfee.

The computer security firm's study, conducted across 24 countries using data from an average of 27 to 28 million personal computers each month, found 17 per cent of machines were running with either disabled or nonexistent antivirus software and firewall defences.

The survey's figures come from anonymised data voluntarily submitted by consumers around the world using the free diagnostic tool McAfee Security Scan Plus. The Windows-only software checks the user's computer for threats, antivirus software and firewall protection.

Web surfers who install Scan Plus are likely to have a problem with their computers that prompted them to use the technology in the first place - so they might be less well protected than the general population. McAfee's figures are thus probably best regarded as indicative rather than definitive.

The US ranked in the bottom five least-protected consumer PC populations, with 19.32 per cent of punters living without basic security, according to McAfee's stats. The situation was much better, but still not exactly brilliant, in Finland where only 9.7 per cent of consumer PCs went unprotected.

The lack of antivirus software puts valuable documents, such as pictures and financial records, at risk of destruction if malware corrupts a system. A separate study found that consumers globally say 27 per cent of their digital files would be "impossible to restore” because they are not backed up properly.

McAfee has a clear self-interest in talking up the need for consumers to run antivirus suites. Along with Symantec and Kaspersky Lab, it is the main supplier of paid-for security software to consumers, after all. Many basic and perfectly functional antivirus packages for Windows are also available from the likes of Avira, Avast or AVG. Microsoft also supplies a basic antivirus scanner.

Each of these scanners are far from effective at blocking brand-spanking new banking Trojans or botnet agents, but they are the best defence (along with patching) punters have against ruthless hackers. So the question arises: if security software is important, why isn't everyone running it?

McAfee reckons that some consumers avoid using antivirus software in the mistaken belief that they are unlikely to be hit by viruses.

"Many consumers still believe that by simply sticking to known 'safe' sites, they’ll be protected from all forms of malicious content," McAfee comments in a blog post about its scan results, published on Tuesday.

"The fact is: the prevalence of sophisticated attacks is rising at an alarming rate. Furthermore, with the adoption of smartphones and tablets, mobile malware has become an immediate threat due to easily accessible personal data like financial and credit card information stored on mobile devices." ®

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