Scientists have revealed an uncanny similarity between the way in which computer viruses and their biological cousins spread.
Results suggest that many of today's virus epidemics, such as the Lovebug, bear more than a passing similarity to outbreaks of sexually transmitted diseases.
Research carried out for Science magazine by Alun Lloyd of Princeton University and Robert May of Oxford University, found that PC viruses often spread slowly amongst a small group of connected users or throughout a single company before exploding out into the world, with the possibility of becoming an epidemic. But the real outbreaks start when more active machines get infected.
"Within the net, viruses can spread even when their potential for spreading is very small," said the researchers.
They compared some of the internet's most used sites to electronic prostitutes. "Epidemiologists have long known that if you have transmission that is very heterogeneous, you're much better off targeting those individuals with the highest risk - for example, sex workers. That would be a much better way than targeting people at random."
The topology of the internet, with so much interconnection between companies and countries, also means that there is no threshold for an epidemic spread, particularly if the most highly connected machines get infected.
However, the one major difference, and perhaps the saving grace of the internet, is anti-virus software. Where humans can catch viruses over and over again, technically computers should only have to catch a virus once before being permanently inoculated against it by an anti-virus patch.
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