If you told residents of Winsford, England, that their personal computers had been turned into an invisible electronic army, they'd probably think you were mad.
But the 33,000-person town reportedly has one of the highest rates of computers infected with programs that receive and respond to commands from other remote computers. These "bot" networks can then be used by attackers to perform denial of service (DOS) attacks on other computers and act as spam generators.
According to Symantec's Internet Security Threat Report released earlier this month, the small town of Winsford had five percent of the world's infected computers, second only behind London at eight percent and ahead of Seoul at four percent. Overall, the UK had about 1/3 of the one to two million infected computers worldwide.
Symantec speculated in March that the size of a city and the rate of broadband growth are related to the number of computers infected by bots. The rapid expansion of broadband facilitates the distribution of malicious software, including bots.
But why would Winsford - a town that initially developed because of the salt mining industry -hold rank with London and Seoul, two cities with populations many, many times greater than its own?
Internet Protocol (IP) addresses affected by bot infections tend to be linked to areas where broadband providers have a heavy concentration of provisioning services, said Symantec spokeswoman, Katherine James. It doesn't necessarily reflect on the number of physical PCs that have infections, although those affected are likely to be in the area.
"With Winsford being ranked as one of the most highly-infected cities, this gives a very clear idea of the growth in broadband provision and the effect this can have on infections in that particular geographical area," she added. "It is the growth in broadband provision and the consequences of this that is key."
Calls to several computer repair shops didn't result in any hard facts on the number of computers in the Winsford area. "You couldn't have picked a more unlikely spot," said one employee at a computer-security firm in Winsford, while laughing hysterically. People in Winsford have "barely heard of computers," he said.
In fact, Winsford isn't totally behind the times at all. The growth of cable broadband in the area and the security troubles that go along with it is probably a major factor, said Robin Crorie, director of Inrucan computer consulting firm.
People have computers but a low awareness of the kind of threats that they face from viruses and scanning, Crorie said. "The sort of attitude would be 'who cares?'" he said. Unless those users see some malady on their screens, "they don't understand" the problem.