Bot attacks are quickly becoming a critical security issue for IT and security administrators, according to industry watchers. And it's an issue that will need to garner more attention in coming months.
''This is extremely dangerous to corporate networks,'' says Carl Banzhof, CTO of Dallas-based Citadel Security Software. ''Corporate networks have large concentrations of systems that can be taken over relatively easily by these bots. A laptop that's infected will come in, or someone on a desktop will open an email or visit a site that they shouldn't, and then [the bot] is on the network. It will automatically start looking for other computers, and it has an arsenal of exploits in its pocket to attack unsuspecting machines.''
Once the bot has circulated to other machines on the corporate network, a remote hacker would have the ability to toy with the company -- changing information, stealing files, encrypting data or even shutting down the network.
''These things are more of a threat than IT managers generally suspect,'' adds Banzhof.
Bots got quite a bit of attention last week when Zotob led the charge against networks that hadn't yet updated a patch for a plug-and-play flaw in Microsoft Windows. But despite the momentary attention, information about bots often takes a far back seat to information coming out on worms, viruses and Trojan horses.
And there has been some confusion over the differences between bots, worms and Trojans.
A bot is not a virus or a Trojan. A bot often is the payload in a virus, explains David Perry, global director of education at TrendMicro Inc., an anti-virus company based in Tokyo.
The bot is a piece of code that takes control of the infected computer and reports back to a remote master control program run by the bot writer. Computers also can be infected by bots by visiting a malicious Website or chat room.
The hacker tries to cultivate as many infected machines as possible, building a virtual army of zombie machines -- also referred to as a botnet. Once this botnet is in place, the hacker can use it to send out spam or launch denial-of-service attacks.
Steve Sundermeier, a vice president at Central Command, an anti-virus and anti-spam company based in Medina, Ohio, says a large enough botnet could be used to interrupt the Internet.
''The more bots, the more infected machines with these bots, the greater control virus authors have,'' says Sundermeier. ''The greater the army, the greater the possibility of destruction. I think there's a lot of theories about this huge army of bots out there that have the opportunity to take down the Internet or raise other havoc. The possibility may exist. We just haven't seen it yet, thank goodness.''
But Sundermeier says what may be more troubling to IT and security administrators is the ability of bots to make their way into a corporate network and take control of it.
A Bot on Your Network?
''Probably tens of thousands of companies have computers that are part of a botnet,'' he adds. ''If you have a bot in your company, you could have information leaking out.''
Gregg Mastoras at Sophos, Inc., an anti-virus and anti-spam company with U.S. headquarters in Lynnfield, Mass., says most CIOs or administrators he talks to are quite sure they don't have any bots on their network. And then they're shocked when he finds them.
''The numbers speak for themselves,'' Mastoras says. ''Fifty percent of all spam now originates from botnets. That's up from 40 percent six months ago. And it's not just all from consumer machines. That's a misnomer. The reality is that very clearly many organizations are infected and don't even know about it.
''We track where spam is coming from and we communicate with the organization sending it, saying, 'Do you know you're sending out spam on Rolex watches?' We're talking about thousands of organizations in the U.S. alone that are affected by it.''
And Banzhof says we're very close to a time when someone could hire a hacker with a botnet to infiltrate a specific company and steal data.
''Actually, it might even exist today,'' says Banzhof. ''You hire a botnet to hit a company and seek out and return specific information for you. That could be facilitated every day in underground message boards. It's usually for scamming but it could be used for corporate espionage or cyber warfare even.''
Eric Yoshizuru, a product manager with Glendale, Calif.-based Panda Software, says stealing information could be just the beginning of a company's troubles.
''It could be very bad depending on what kind of information that user has access to. If they have access to a database with people's credit card information, then the whole company's reputation is at stake. If they take over enough computers in the network, they could actually shut it down... They could take critical files and encrypt them and then basically hold them hostage.''
Analysts say keeping a system updated with the latest patches and keeping anti-virus software updated should take care of bot attacks. And all of that would be taken care of in a perfect world. But in a world where IT workers are short-handed, budgets are tight and there literally are more patches than one IT shop can hope to handle, bots are becoming a real problem to deal with.