Botnets–or computers that are hooked together into a vast chain of cyber-robots that do the bidding of automated programs to send the majority of eMail spam, illegally seek financial information, and install malicious software on still more PCs–remain an internet scourge, reports the New York Times. In a windowless room on Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Wash., T. J. Campana, a cyber crime investigator, connects an unprotected computer running an early version of Windows XP to the internet. In about 30 seconds, the computer is "owned." Active zombie networks created by a growing criminal underground peaked last month at more than half a million computers, according to shadowserver.org, an organization that tracks botnets. Even though security experts have diminished the botnets to about 300,000 computers, that is still twice the number detected a year ago. The actual numbers might be far larger; Microsoft investigators, who say they are tracking about 1,000 botnets at any given time, say the largest network still controls several million PCs. "The mean time to infection is less than five minutes," said Richie Lai, who is part of Microsoft’s Internet Safety Enforcement Team, a group of about 20 researchers and investigators. The team is tackling a menace that in the last five years has grown from a computer hacker pastime to a dark business that is threatening the commercial viability of the internet…

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