By Ryan Singel

April 10, Wired

SAN FRANCISCO -- Gangs of thousands of zombie home computers grinding out spam, committing fraud and overpowering websites are the most vexing net threat today, according to law enforcement and security professionals.

Today's botnet herders have hundreds of thousands of computers at their command and use technically sophisticated ways to hide their headquarters, making it easy for them to make millions from spam and credit card theft. They can also be used to direct floods of fake traffic at a targeted website in order to bring down a rival, extract protection money or less frequently, used to make a political point in the case of attacks on Estonia and the Church of Scientology.

Security pros and government officials are now describing the latter attacks, known as Distributed Denial of Service attacks, as serious threats to national security -- turning packet floods against public websites into the latest face of "cyberwar" hysteria.

Hence, the appearance Tuesday of a panel discussion at the RSA 2008 security conference entitled "Protecting the Homeland: Winning the Botnet Battle," which was marked by a mix of resignation, indignation and post-9/11 rhetoric.

Ronald Teixeira, the executive director of the non-profit National Cyber Security Alliance and the panel's moderator, began the discussion by describing botnets as "one of the largest threats we face on the internet today, and they can be used to attack critical infrastructure."

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photo: Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff speaks about computer security at the RSA Conference on information security in San Francisco, Tuesday, April 8, 2008 (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)