Government sees silver lining in botnet cloud

Let's celebrate, says the DTI, as the UK holds on to the top spot for botnet infections

The epidemic of hijacked PCs sweeping the UK underlines the sign of the success achieved in creating Broadband Britain, according to a senior official at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

Nigel Hickson, head of European e-commerce and telecoms regulation at the DTI, told a London conference on Monday "we should celebrate that we are number one for [botnet] infections. It says something about our importance and the value within UK Plc."

Hickson, who was taking part in a panel at Broadband Britain Summit 2005, was responding to a question from Jeremy Ward, Symantec's director of service development. Ward asked what government and industry are doing to fight online threats, and build online trust.

The suggestion that botnet infections have their positive side sparked some surprise within the audience. One attendee pointed out that he "wouldn't want the value of being number one in infections to be extended to bird flu".

Hickson added that if regulation was brought in to force the communications industry to fight these threats, then Internet take-up could be restricted.

Ward pointed to recent Symantec research that found that the UK contains more 'bots' — PCs that have been taken over by a malicious hacker and used to relay spam and take parts in denial-of-service attacks — than any other country.

Speaking later to ZDNet UK, Hickson explained that he wasn't arguing that botnets should be encouraged, and insisted that the UK will always be an attractive target to cybercriminals.

"I'm not saying bots are a good thing. The UK will always be a target, because of our productivity and our use of the English language," Hickson said.

According to Ward, the rise in botnet infections in the UK can is directly linked to the boom in broadband use, with some users and ISPs failing to deploy appropriate security measures.

Richard Allan, former Liberal Democrat MP and head of government affairs for Cisco, said he was confident that the problem of botnets would be addressed in the coming months, as network operators wake up to the need to tighten security.

"It's like antivirus. Two years ago, virtually nobody had it. Now, ISPs offer antivirus protection as standard," said Allan.