IE attacks pose small threat to U.S., big risk to China

Chinese exploit targets IE6, which accounts for 50 per cent of all browsers in China

Chinese computer users are five times more likely than U.S. users to be targeted by hackers exploiting the just-patched bug in Microsoft's Internet Explorer, a Web metrics company said today.

The attacks, which Symantec researchers say are coming from hundreds of sites , are only able to compromise computers running Internet Explorer 6 (IE6), the nearly nine-year-old browser bundled with Windows XP.

While less than 10% of U.S. computer users run the ancient IE6, 50% of the PCs in China use that browser to access the Internet, according to the most recent data from .

Worldwide, IE6 accounted for 21 per cent of all browsers used last month to surf the 40,000 Web sites that monitors for its clients.

Other sources say that China's computer users are even more vulnerable to the growing attacks. StatCounter , an Irish metrics vendor, pegged IE6's share of the China market last month at 62 per cent, nearly 10 times greater than the 6.4 per cent share the old browser enjoyed in the U.S.

It's ironic that Chinese users are more likely to fall victim to the attacks, since by most accounts the original exploit was created in China by Chinese hackers .

The attack code has grabbed the attention of security professionals and Windows users ever since Google announced its corporate network had been hacked , and company secrets stolen. Google said it had evidence that pointed to China as ground zero for the attacks. Within days, security researchers claimed, and then Microsoft confirmed, that the attacks against Google and several dozen other Western companies exploited a critical flaw in IE . Those attacks, added Microsoft, had been aimed solely at IE6.

Microsoft patched the IE vulnerability yesterday, rolling out one of its rare "out-of-band" emergency updates. Also yesterday Microsoft acknowledged that it had known of the IE bug several months before the attacks began.

To add insult to injury, Chinese users are also more apt to find one of the malicious sites hosting the attack code, Symantec said today. Of the several hundred sites that the company's researchers have found running the IE6 exploit, 62 per cent are Chinese-language sites running on China-based servers. Just 27 per cent are hosted in the U.S., Symantec said.

The IE security update can be downloaded and installed via the Microsoft Update and Windows Update services, as well as through Windows Server Update Services.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld . Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer , send e-mail to or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed .

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