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For three years, a peddler of pirated software in Malaysia had been selling counterfeit cyber café management software to about 700 customers from a shop in Selangor. He was eventually stopped when the local police raided his store in June 2014.
Such peddlers can be found throughout Asia, a diverse region where 61% of all software used by individuals and businesses is not genuine, according to a BSA global software survey.
For some time, experts have warned that users of pirated software not only deny themselves the latest upgrades, but also face a bigger risk of falling prey to cyber attacks.
The link between software piracy and malware infections has now been quantified by a Microsoft-commissioned study conducted by the Faculty of Engineering at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
Led by associate professor Biplab Sikdar, an NUS research team analysed 90 new laptops and computers, as well as 165 CDs and DVDs containing pirated software. The samples were randomly purchased from suppliers known to sell pirated software from eight countries in Asia – Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, South Korea and the Philippines.
The researchers also examined 203 copies of pirated software downloaded from the internet, in line with the growing adoption of broadband services in the Asia-Pacific region. Each copy of the software was tested for malware using major anti-virus software products.
Three in five CDs and DVDs analysed by the team contained malware. Infected discs contained an average of five pieces of malicious programs. In some cases, as many as 38 malware instances were found in just one DVD.
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As for pirated software downloaded from peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, 34% of it was bundled with malware that infects a computer once the download is complete or when the folder containing the pirated software is opened.
Also, 31% of the downloaded pirated software did not complete installation, suggesting other motives, such as driving traffic to torrent hosting sites that subject users to malware and unwanted advertisements.
Trojans made up 51% of all malware found in downloaded pirated software. Once activated, the Trojans would install backdoors for hackers to control the device and access confidential information, modify firewall setting, and delete or encrypt data.
Cyber criminals even went as far as to deactivate existing anti-virus software. According to the study, 24% of malicious programs bundled with pirated software downloads deactivated the anti-malware software running on a computer. Once the anti-malware engine is blocked, the downloaded malware installs itself on the computer.
Brand new PCs were also not spared. The NUS researchers found that 92% of new and unused computers that had pirated software installed were pre-infected with malware. These computers were bought from suppliers known to sell counterfeit software.
Keshav Dhakad, assistant general counsel and regional director at Microsoft Asia’s Digital Crimes Unit, said suppliers of counterfeit software would not be giving away their wares for free or at a low cost – they usually come with something more, in the form of malware. “Consumers and businesses need to understand that non-genuine software comes with a lot of threats,” he said.