South Korea World Champion in Computer Infections
A South Korean Marine during an amphibious-assault exercise in 1998.
CREDIT: U.S. Navy
South Korea leads in many ways. It's got one of the world's fastest average broadband speeds. It's got the highest standard of living in mainland East Asia. It shares the world's most hostile border with its evil twin North Korea.
According to a new report, South Korea also has the world's highest percentage of infected computers.
Fifty-seven percent of computers in South Korea were infected by some form of malware in the second quarter (April through June) of 2012, according to data compiled by Spanish anti-virus firm Panda Labs.
That dubious ranking is followed closely by South Korea's neighbors China, with a 52 percent infection rate, and Taiwan, which had 43 percent of its computers infected from April through June.
The rest of the top 10 most infected countries are somewhat poorer: Bolivia, Honduras, Turkey, Ecuador, Russia, Slovakia and Poland.
Worldwide, the average rate of computer infection was 32 percent. The United States and Mexico fell just under that line, with 30 percent each, while Canada came in at 25 percent.
Who's clean, who's dirty
In terms of the cleanest countries, Switzerland topped the list with an 18 percent infection rate, followed by Sweden at 19 percent. The rest of the least infected were Norway, the United Kingdom, Uruguay, Germany, Ireland, Finland, Hungary and the Netherlands.
"The list of least infected countries is dominated by some of the world's most technologically advanced nations, with the sole exception of South Korea," noted Panda Labs technical director Luis Corrons (who overlooked equally advanced Taiwan). "Even though there may be other factors that influence these results, there seems to be a clear connection between technological development and malware infection rates."
A study by a different company, Norway's Norman, a few months ago put Finland as the cleanest country, and Albania, the poorest country in Europe, as the "dirtiest."
But even that study found that rich South Korea had the second-highest rate of infection, with well over 50 percent. (The next three "dirtiest" were Guatemala, Vietnam and Indonesia, all relatively poor.)
Rich but dirty
So what is it about South Korea? Why is a technologically advanced, wealthy country such an outlier when it comes to computer infections?
Neither Panda nor Norman would speculate, but let's go back to that long, hostile border with North Korea, which separates two countries still technically at war.
The computer systems of South Korean governmental, military and commercial institutions are under constant attack.
In March 2011, 40 South Korean websites, including those of large banks, government ministries and the presidential residence, were knocked offline by a massive denial-of-service attack. That same month, malware embedded in pirated video games attacked systems at one of South Korea's major airports.
The North Korean military is thought to have been training electronic-warfare experts for decades.
When South Korean Internet users aren't worrying about their northern neighbors, they have the Chinese and even themselves to monitor. A huge data breach last year sent the personal information of 35 million people — 70 percent of the population — to hackers based in China.
Just last week, South Korean police arrested two citizens for stealing personal data on nearly 9 million people and selling it to unscrupulous telemarketers.
So it could be that South Koreans simply live in a tough neighborhood, digitally and otherwise. That doesn't completely explain neighboring Japan's infection rate of only 27 percent, but it's a start.