Web-savvy criminals have turned Israel into the world's highest ranking source of malicious Internet activity per user, security experts have told The Jerusalem Post.
From July through December 2006, 9 percent of all such activity could be traced back to Israel. Taiwan came next with 8%, while Poland and the US tied at 6%, according to a report issued in March by security software giant Symantec, based in Cupertino, California.
For overall numbers, the US still has the most malicious activity at 31 percent. China was second with 10 percent.
"It is hard to say exactly how many people may be involved" in making money over the Internet via activities that increasingly involve the theft of sensitive personal information, said Ricardo Reznik, vice president for Marketing at Rosh Ha'ayin-based TrekIT.
"It [malicious Internet activity] is definitely being carried out mostly by organized crime groups looking for new streams of revenue rather than [by] individuals," said Reznik, whose company represents Internet security firms.
Most of the activity, according to the report, is criminal in nature and is executed by organized groups that sometimes target massive networks of users at the same time.
The sophistication of Israel's Internet users and its developed hi-tech sector have contributed to the high level of malicious Web activity, said Arie Danon, Symantec manager for the Mediterranean region.
"Some people will use their knowledge to do good and some people will use their knowledge for bad purposes," he said.
This is the first time that Symantec has included a per capita ranking for countries in its semiannual Internet Security Threat Report.
The new Symantec figure does not mean that a high proportion of Israel's 3.7 million Internet users engage in "malicious activities," cautioned Reznik.
Although Israel tops the ranking in per capita Internet abuse, in absolute terms it does not even place in the top 10, lagging far behind the top-ranked USA, the world's largest Web market, which accounts for 31% of the malicious activity.
According to Symantec, the organized malicious activity often involves propagation of viruses, "trojan horses" and other programs designed to take over target computers. Such programs may be delivered via e-mail and take over control of a victim's computer without his knowledge and/or steal sensitive information.
"It's not like 10 years ago when people were sending out viruses just to play pranks," said Amir Lev, president of Commtouch Software LPD in Netanya, a messaging and security company.
Criminal groups use viruses and trojans to set up networks of infected computers, he said. An e-mail may be used to deliver a virus that then installs a robot program, or "bot," on the user's computer. This bot program hides itself and then makes contact with a server to obtain further instructions. These servers are run by "botmasters" working for criminal groups who run "bot networks" of infected computers.
Once a botmaster has established control over a network, money can be made by using those computers to send spam advertisements for everything from pornography to cheap viagra.
Reznik chalked the high amount of criminal Internet activity here up to the fact that Israel, according to a study his company performed in February, is a large exporters of spam, accounting for approximately 2% of world junk mail in 2006.
"The figures clearly show that spammers are operating intensively in Israel on an international level" said Yaniv Barzilai, TrekIT deputy managing director of sales, referring to the TrekIT report.
Although spam is not itself considered malicious by the researchers and is not necessarily illegal, the Symantec report found that it is increasingly intertwined with malicious criminal activities.
The Knesset passed a anti-spam law in 2005 requiring that recipients "opt-in" for marketers to be able to send them spam. Regulators, however, are still largely powerless to stop international spamming networks.
"We accept that there is a big problem with spam and other [Internet] activities in Israel," said a source at the Communications Ministry. "We're looking at options in the Knesset, examining both European and American models of spam legislation to decide what's best for Israel."
He admitted, however, that he was "not sure" whether new legislation would target the worst offenders - Israelis who send illegal spam to computers all over the world as well as those who send spam solely within Israel.
According to Barzilai, the state needs to act to get such activity under control.
"Ultimately, Israel will have to contend with the problem of junk mail emanating from here, as a result of international pressure by countries or pressure from companies such as Microsoft, which has already taken action against Israeli spammers," he said.