June 27, 2005
Hong Kong's unsuspecting broadband Internet users are the most
vulnerable on the planet to attacks by so-called ''zombie'' computers,
according to a report by a British Internet security firm.
While Hong Kong has increased its efforts to become more secure for
shopping and banking, there are vulnerabilities in the system that
broadband users are not even aware of, officials say. The fact is that
clandestine users piggybacking on the unaware have multiplied so fast
that it is nearly impossible to go onto the Internet without being
victimized or hijacked.
These hijacked computers send thousands of spam e-mails per minute,
set up fake Web sites and cripple servers, according to the report, by
Prolexic Technologies, a British firm that has presented Internet
security solutions to the US Department of Homeland Security.
Costs to workers from lost productivity reach as much as HK$10 billion
a year, government officials say. Prolexic's 2005 ``Zombie Report,''
released last week, said Hong Kong, with 4.8 million broadband users,
is the per capita leader in the number of computers that have been
made into zombies by illicit users.
``We notice the major corporations, the banks, the government have
done a lot in security to protect their servers, but at the same time
the customers are not well aware of such things,'' said Roy Ko, an
information specialist at the Hong Kong Computer Emergency Response
Team Coordination Centre, started by the Hong Kong Productivity
Council in 2002 to coordinate responses to technology problems.
``A lot of these [upgrades] are to protect clients who are not aware
of the latest vulnerabilities,'' he said. According to a white paper
by Internet firm CipherTrust, ``the most popular method for
distributing the trojans [the programs hide in the victim's computer]
that create zombies is via an e-mail attachment masquerading as an
innocent file, such as a digital photo or contest entry form.''
Hong Kong government departments prefer not to comment on the figures
because they question the methodology of the analysis, but Ko warned
that Hong Kong users should spend more time educating themselves on
The Hong Kong Monetary Authority made it mandatory this year for local
banks providing online banking to offer their users new security
devices to prevent fraud from hackers who set up fake banking Web
sites and encourage customers to enter passwords so they can steal
``What happens with broadband is it's always on,'' said Andrew Lih, a
professor of media studies at University of Hong Kong. ``If you just
hook up directly to the DSL [digital subscriber line] modem, you're
Users can look at the logs on their routers, if they have them, to see
just how vulnerable they are to these attacks.
Routers take the fresh feed from the Internet and wire it into the
computer, but they also absorb attacks from viruses flowing in through
``You're talking about an attack a minute, sometimes a little flood
every five or 10 seconds,'' Lih said.
According to Nielsen/Net Ratings, ``The most popular Hong Kong
shopping Web sites received 20 percent more visitors in the quarter
ending August 2004 compared with the corresponding period a year
ago.'' That was a rise of 320,000 people to 1.6 million.
Imagine that this shopping is being done on computers that have
outdated firewalls, or on PCs without updated systems. ``[Consumers]
don't have a person to look after the system, so they don't know what
is happening in the system,'' said Ko. ``There are a lot of these
vulnerabilities reported every month, they have to keep updating and
patching their system.''
Distributed denial-of-service attacks aren't the only problems on the
government's mind. Spam e-mail drains productivity from workers. ``The
government believes that it would be necessary to enact legislation to
regulate unsolicited electronic messages after studying the
submissions received at the consultation conducted last year,'' said
Esther Mak, information officer for the Office of the
The Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association, an organization
that represents the views of a group of businesses, such as New World
Technologies, PCCW and City Telecom, said that there should be
legislation that would bring about punishment.
According to a June 2004 Legco consultation paper, ``Spam causes harm
to ISPs because it uses large amount of bandwidth and storage space.''
That leads to poorly functioning ISPs and dissatisfied customers, not
to mentioned a stress on ISPs who have to pay more to secure more.
``[They] need to build enormous capacity into their systems. The
increased volume of e-mails can also significantly slow down the speed
of Internet, overload servers and threaten network integrity,'' it
Poor service is only one thing users should concern themselves with,
though, says one Internet security analyst.
``Each one of these PCs becomes a great gateway to funnel illegal
funds. Tracking them is very hard,'' said Maren Leizaola, director of
Web mail provider HK.Com.
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