In a stark statement, analysts have warned that Hong Kong is under siege from legions of "zombies" attacking people with spam and leaving in their wake a trail of destruction costing millions of dollars a year.
It sounds like the plot of a surrealist B-movie but it is the worrying scenario computer users are facing in a city which has been awarded the unenviable title of spam capital of the world.
AdvertisementThe problem has taken a sinister new twist with the rise of so-called zombies -- computers infected by a virus that are sending reams of spam, or unsolicited emails, without their users' knowledge.
There are an estimated 4,000 zombies active in Hong Kong and their criminal puppet masters use them to fire off thousands of messages offering products ranging from jewellery to pornography.
According to the 2008 Annual Security Report by Internet security firm MessageLabs 81.3 percent of emails sent to Hong Kong computer users last year were spam, more than in any other territory or country in the world.
And the problem is getting worse, with figures for August this year showing the spam rate in Hong Kong had risen to 93.4 percent.
"Nowhere is quite like Hong Kong. Location, history and inherent character combine to give it a special identity that sets it apart from anywhere else in the world," says Internet data analyst Dan Bleaken.
Bleaken believes the city?s status as a financial and commercial hub makes it a lucrative target for spammers.
"According to some estimates, spam-related activities cost Hong Kong 770 million dollars (5.5 billion HK dollars) in 2001, for example," he said.
Internet security firms say the money is lost primarily through the disruption caused to business by malicious software and viruses -- lost productivity through system downtime, slow system response times, technicians' time, extra hardware and software.
Bleaken analysed data gathered by MessageLabs for a research paper entitled "Hong Kong and the Internet: Key Threats, Current Trends".
"Proximity to the rest of China -- a spammers? haven" is another root cause of Hong Kong's problems, Bleaken says in the report.
"Although the rest of China is the origin of only seven percent of global spam, it accounts for nearly 24 percent of the spam heading for Hong Kong."
Under the Unsolicited Electronic Messages Ordinance, which came into force here in December 2007, companies are required to provide an "unsubscribe" facility that requires no further correspondence within 10 days.
They also have to provide their name, a telephone number and postal address in messages, including a valid email address.
Companies breaching the rules face fines of up to one million dollars (128,000 US), although there have so far been no prosecutions.
Hong Kong's Office of the Telecommunications Authority says it had received 13,055 reports of suspected contraventions up to the end of July and had sent out 89 warning letters.
But spam is an international problem and legislation can only be effective if countries work together on targeting the spammers, says Roy Ko, manager of the government-funded Hong Kong Computer Emergency Response Team Coordination Centre.
"These days we receive spam from around the world... They are being sent out from locations that haven't implemented anti-spam laws. Unless we have a group effort on fighting spam we will keep receiving spam mails."
Part of the problem, say experts, is that the cyber criminals are often one step ahead of the legislators.
"Botnets" are the new weapon of choice in the remorselessly rising tide of spam. Short for "robot network" -- these are networks of zombie computers that, unknown to their owners, have been taken over by a remote controller to undertake all kinds of skullduggery.
Highly professional gangs are responsible for a vast majority of online crime -- now a burgeoning 100 million-US dollar global industry. Such gangs are a worldwide phenomenon and many operate from China, though not from Hong Kong itself.
"Botnets are fast becoming the air supply of the spammers," Paul Wood, a senior analyst at MessageLabs, told AFP.
"In 2008, botnets were responsible for as much as 90 percent of all spam." Wood estimates that there are around 4,000 zombie computers active in Hong Kong, around 40 times higher than would normally be expected for a region of around seven million people.
"This is due to the high concentration of computers in Hong Kong, which is itself a function of the region's affluence and the substantial commercial presence there," he said.
Patrick Lee, a Hong Kong-based internet entrepreneur and co-founder of the Rotten Tomatoes film reviews website, advises people to filter out spam using the software that comes free with most internet email accounts.
But all of us already have access to the most effective weapon in the fight against spam, he says, and that is plain old common sense.
"If it looks shady don't click on anything," he said.
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