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New digital 'hurricane' churns, gathering strength to land blow on the internet

Tim Johnson, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in Science & Technology News

WASHINGTON -- Just as hurricane trackers chart storms in the Atlantic before they make landfall, cybersecurity researchers track viral infections that threaten mayhem. They've found a doozy.

A massive zombie robotic network, or botnet, has expanded to infect "an estimated million organizations" and could bring corners of the internet to its knees, an Israeli cybersecurity company, Check Point Software, says.

"The next cyber hurricane is about to come," Check Point says.

Several cybersecurity researchers Monday confirmed Check Point's findings, saying the botnet could replicate, and perhaps dwarf, the Mirai botnet that almost exactly a year ago took down major websites on the Atlantic Coast, crippling a part of the internet's backbone and slowing traffic to a crawl.

The botnet, which has been named either "Reaper" or "IoTroop," was first detected in mid-September. A Chinese cybersecurity firm, Qihoo 360, says the botnet is swelling by 10,000 devices a day, forcibly recruiting foot soldiers in an ever-larger invisible rogue army.

Cybercrime gangs form botnets by infecting internet-enabled devices, often wireless cameras or routers with weak security features. Once corralled, controllers can send commands for the botnet to overwhelm a target, knocking its website off line or crippling the internet.

The new botnet has spread across the United States, Australia and other parts of the globe, researchers say, although Check Point notes that "it is too early to assess the intentions" of those propagating the infection.

"It could be something that's meant to create global chaos," Maya Horowitz, threat intelligence group manager at Check Point, said in a telephone interview from Israel. "But it could be something that's more targeted," perhaps aimed at a country or industry.

She said it is unlikely that cybersecurity experts will be able to halt an eventual attack.

"The chances are pretty low for that," Horowitz said, adding that like an epidemic of infectious disease, "each infected device is looking for other devices to compromise."

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