Computer security

Businesses and consumers that choose to use pirated software are running an extremely high risk of malware infection while searching for and downloading it, a new IDC report says.

According to The Dangerous world of Counterfeit and Pirated Software, unlicensed software and bogus software portraying itself as genuine has become one of the most reliable fast-tracks to the risk of malware infection.

The IDC report was commissioned by Microsoft.

After running 533 tests of web and P2P pirate sources, IDC discovered that 36% led to encounters with Trojans and malicious adware. For pirated DVDs, the rate was around one in five.

Globally, nearly half of pirated software was downloaded but street markets still accounted for 21% and ‘borrowed’ another 16%, it said.

Enterprises don’t get off lightly either, with IDC’s survey of businesses finding that nearly a quarter in North American firms reported employees installing “their own software” within the last two years, something that was often poorly audited.

This all leads to infections that could consume 1.5 billion hours in clean-up time, or a fairly staggering projected global cost of $114 billion (£76 billion) in 2013 for counterfeit software across all types of user, including enterprises.

These costs vared by region, with North America contributing $16.5 billion, Western Europe $20.5 billion, and the large Asia-Pacific region the highest amount, $38.7 billion.

The report sometimes lacks context for some of its generalisations, buckled together from IDC’s own research as well as external sources such as the campaigning vendor-funded Business Software Alliance (BSA).

For some reason, the study authors were particularly upset at the number of tracking cookies they encountered on P2P pirated software distribution channels but many legitimate non-pirate sites also drop such cookies.

Similarly malware, which has become a software form aggressively distributed by any and every channel, including email and legitimate websites. Pirated software might be a particular source for bad software but it’s a long way from being the only one.

An interesting example is the now thankfully fading phenomenon of fake antivirus programs which people paid for believing they were real even though they weren’t.

Under a broad definition, such software would count as counterfeit and yet presumably the users thought they were doing the right thing by paying for it.

The report's language if not its broad findings will cause some to dismiss it as scaremongering of the sort that suits the software industry. What is missing is any information on the different justiifications used for piracy where it exists; amoral or not some see piracy as a political act and will not be persuaded otherwise by data on the harm caused by malware.

Others have argued that software complexity is often the real issue for legitimate businesses trying to stay on the right side of the law.

What is apparent is that the campaign against piracy is struggling to make much headway as unlicensed installations are now running at three times their level when IDC carried out a similar survey in 2006. This is ahead of growth rates for the internet as a whole.

Earlier in 2013, Microsoft put a clutch of Chinese software resellers on notice that it would sue unless a settlement was reached on alleged piracy.