The Computer Corner

By Charles Miller

COMPUETRS

 

What is a botnet?

 

This column is the third recent one I have written on the subject of updates. What I hope to be able to do this week is impart a better understanding of why software and firmware updates are necessary and, thus, why you should not be among those internet users who fail to update your devices.

For the purpose of this article, I use the terms software and firmware interchangeably while simultaneously acknowledging that software is for computers while firmware is the software installed on less sophisticated electronics such as printers, routers, gas pumps, etc. These latter devices are in fact little computers that share many characteristics and vulnerabilities with more sophisticated desktop and laptop computers.

The reason for many dire alarms concerning security updates is the emergence of what is called a “botnet.” The word botnet is formed from the words “robot” and “network.” Botnets are collections of thousands or millions of security-compromised devices that are connected to the internet and under the control of the cybercriminals who create botnets. Botnets can be used to send out spam emails, attack companies or individuals using distributed denial-of-service attack (DDoS attack), steal data, or commit other illegal acts conceived by the criminals who control the botnet.

A lot of people have trouble understanding that their security cameras or their thermostat can be sending out spam emails, but such appliances can be compromised by a botnet and used as relay points for carrying out the instructions sent by whoever controls the botnet. The owner of botnet-infected computers and Internet of Things (IoT) devices is almost always unaware that their garage door opener or their swimming pool filter monitor or smartphone has been infected and is now under the control of a botnet.

It is already established beyond doubt that nation states are actively engaged in development of cyber-warfare capabilities. One of the so-called doomsday scenarios involves using millions of IoT devices in a distributed DDoS attack on the internet’s core servers. English translation: The Chinese or the Russians or the North Koreans might use their botnet to take over millions of internet-connected devices and use them to completely shut down the internet, phone systems and/or the electric power grid in all of North America.

What can prevent this apocalypse from happening, aside from diplomacy, is you. You can stop denying your computer installing updates when they are offered. If Apple or Microsoft suggests an update, install it! You can proactively install firmware updates on your internet-connected devices. Visit the websites of the manufacturers of your refrigerator, SmartTV, etc., to see if new firmware updates are available. Install any updates that are available.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981, and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044 415 101 8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.

 

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