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Email networks and the spread of computer viruses

Stephanie Forrest, Justin Balthrop, M. Newman
Phys. Rev. E 66, 3
ISSN 1063-651X
September 2002

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M. E. J. Newman
Santa Fe Institute, 1399 Hyde Park Road, Santa Fe, NM 87501

Stephanie Forrest, Justin Balthrop
Department of Computer Science, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131–1386

Many computer viruses spread via electronic mail, making use of computer users’ email address books as a source for email addresses of new victims. These address books form a directed social network of connections between individuals over which the virus spreads. Here we investigate empirically the structure of this network using data drawn from a large computer installation and discuss the implications of this structure for the understanding and prevention of computer virus epidemics.

The structure of various networks, including social and computer networks, has been a subject of considerable recent interest in the physics literature [1, 2]. The spread of infection is an area of special interest [3–6], including the spread of human diseases and also computer viruses [7, 8], which are the topic of this paper. We present an empirical analysis of the networks over which computer viruses spread and study some possible control strategies for preventing virus infections.

Currently, the primary vehicle for transmission of computer viruses is electronic mail. Viruses typically arrive on a computer as an attachment to an email message which, when activated by the user, sends further copies of itself to other recipients. The email addresses of these other recipients are usually obtained by examining an email “address book,” a file in which the user for convenience stores the email addresses of his or her regular correspondents. As pointed out by Lloyd and May [5], these address books create a network of computer users over which the virus spreads. One can visualize this network as a set of nodes representing computer users, with a link running from user A to user B if B’s email address appears in A’s address book. This network is entirely distinct from the physical network of optical fibers and other connections over which data are transferred between computers [21]. The network over which an email virus spreads is a social network of personal connections between computer users. If we are to understand the mechanisms by which viruses spread, we need to understand first the structure of this social network.

We have analyzed address book data in 20 common formats, gathered from a large university computer system serving 27 841 users, and thereby reconstructed the corresponding network of computer users. Because email viruses can only be transmitted if computer users actually read their email, all data were discarded for users who had not read their email in the previous 90 days, leaving a total of 16 881 in the network.

The network necessarily omits any connections from the outside world to users inside the network, since there is no way to find out about such connections other than by collecting data from external users. A similar issue arises in studies of the structure of the World-Wide Web, in which hyperlinks to a website from other sites cannot easily be discovered. Connections to users from outside the observed network are important because it is presumably along these connections that viral infection initially arrives. Thus our data can tell us about the spread of viruses within a community, but not about how those viruses arrive in the first place. From a practical standpoint, however, there is little that computer system administrators can do to control the spread of a virus in the world at large. Consequently, their efforts are usually focussed on minimizing damage once the infection enters the computer system for which they have responsibility. For this reason, we have also eliminated from our network all connections to users outside the network, of which there are many, leaving a network composed only of those connections that fall within the set of users studied.

An important property of our email network is that it is directed. That is, each edge (i.e., line) joining two vertices in the network has a direction. Just because B’s email address appears in A’s address book does not necessarily mean that the reverse is also true, although, as we will see, it often is. The directed nature of the network makes the spread of email viruses qualitatively different from the spread of human diseases, for which most types of disease-causing contact are undirected. As we will see, there are a variety of interesting phenomena that are peculiar to the spread of infection on a directed network.

Table I provides a summary of the statistical properties of our email network. In the remainder of this paper we discuss in detail the network structure and its implications for virus spread.

The first thing we notice about our network is that quite a small fraction of the sixteen thousand vertices actually have address books—around a quarter [22]. However, a majority of the vertices in the network are nonetheless connected to one another, by edges leading either in or out of the vertex, or both. About ten thousand vertices, or 59%, are connected to others and therefore are at risk of either receiving or passing on virus infections.

The mean degree z of a vertex is 3.38. (Recall that the degree of a vertex is the number of edges to which it is connected.) In a directed network such as this one, vertices have both an in-degree and an out-degree. The means of these numbers are the same, since every edge that begins at a vertex must end at some other vertex. Thus z is both the mean in- and out-degree. As a rough rule of thumb, viruses spread when the mean out-degree of a vertex is greater than 1, since in this regime each infection received by a computer is on average passed on to more than one other. Thus it appears that our network of computer users is easily dense enough to spread infection.

number of vertices16881
number with address books4581
number with non-zero in- or out-degree10110
mean number of entries per address book12.45
mean degree z (either in or out)3.38
correlation coeff. of in- and out-degree0.529
clustering coefficient0.168
expected clustering on random graph0.017
total number of edges57029
number of edges that point both ways13176
fraction pointing both ways (reciprocity)0.231
expected reciprocity on random graph0.00095

TABLE I: Summary of statistical properties of the email network.

FIG. 1: In- and out-degree distributions for our network. The solid lines represent fits to the exponential and stretched exponential forms discussed in the text.

FIG. 1: In- and out-degree distributions for our network. The solid lines represent fits to the exponential and stretched exponential forms discussed in the text.

Also of interest is the distribution of vertex degrees. In Fig. 1 we show cumulative histograms of in- and out-degree for our network. Both distributions are markedly faster decaying than the power-law degree distributions seen in other technological networks such as the Internet [9] and the World-Wide Web [10, 11]. In fact, as the figure shows, the cumulative distributions are well fit by a simple exponential for the in-degree and a stretched exponential with exponent \frac{1}{2} for the out-degree. These correspond to non-cumulative distributions p_j \sim \exp(-j/j_0) for in-degree and p_k \sim (1/\sqrt{k})\exp{(- \sqrt{k/k_0})} for out-degree with j_0 = 8.57(9) and k_0 = 4.18(3). (Free fits to stretched exponential forms give values of 1.034 and 0.493 for the two exponents, very close to the values of 1 and \frac{1}{2} assumed here.) Interestingly, both these degree distributions are known to occur in certain models of growing networks—the pure exponential in models with random edge assignment [12] and the stretched exponential in models with sublinear preferential attachment [13]. Thus the observed distributions would probably be well fit by a growth model in which the source of added edges was chosen according to a sublinear preferential attachment and the destination at random. This seems reasonable: it is natural to suppose that individuals who already have large address books would be more likely to add to them than individuals who do not, but it is not clear that there is any mechanism that would favor making new connections to individuals with high in-degree.

Regardless of the precise degree distribution, however, it is clear that there are a few vertices in the network that have very high degree. This has important implications for the spread of infection on the network [4, 14, 15], a point which we discuss further below.

The in- and out-degrees of a vertex are not necessarily independent, but may be correlated (or anticorrelated), and one should therefore really consider a joint distribution p_{jk} of in-degree j and out-degree k [16]. Although this quantity is difficult to represent visually, one can get an idea of the level of correlation between in- and out-degrees by calculating a correlation coefficient for the two, given by r = (\sum_{jk} jkp_{jk} - z^2) / (\sigma_{\text{in}} \sigma_{\text{out}}), where \sigma_{\text{in}} and \sigma_{\text{out}} are the corresponding standard deviations. This quantity takes values in the range −1 ≤ r ≤ 1, depending on the level of correlation. For our network, we find its value to be r = 0.53, indicating that the two degrees are strongly correlated—the email addresses of individuals who have large address books tend to appear in the address books of many others.

Another important statistical property peculiar to directed networks is the “reciprocity” [17]. Reciprocity measures the fraction of edges between vertices that point both ways. In the network studied here, the reciprocity is about 0.23, i.e., if there is an edge pointing from vertex A to vertex B, then there is a 23% probability that there will also be an edge from B to A. As before we can also calculate the reciprocity on a random graph, and in terms of the joint degree distribution pjk defined above we find that the expected value is (nz)^{-1} \sum_{jk} jkp_{jk}, which gives 9.49 \times 10^{-4} for the present network, several orders of magnitude smaller than the observed value. This strongly suggests that the observed value is not the result of pure chance association of vertices. Very likely we are observing social phenomena at work—there is a heightened chance that you will have a person in your address book if they have you in theirs, presumably because the presence of a person’s address in an address book implies some kind of social connection between the two people in question, which in many cases goes both ways.

Bidirectional edges can be thought of as undirected, and the email network can be thought of as a “semi-directed network,” a graph in which some edges are directed and others are undirected. (Technically one might define a semi-directed network as one in which the reciprocity does not tend to zero as n becomes large, but instead tends to a non-zero constant value.) It seems likely that many other real-world networks that are formally directed networks are in fact really semi-directed. For example, we have calculated the reciprocity for a 269 504 vertex subset of the World-Wide Web [10], which is a directed network of web pages and hyperlinks, and found a value of 0.57, where the expected value on the corresponding random graph would be 1.2 \times 10^{-4}, indicating that the Web is probably also a semi-directed graph.

FIG. 2: The structure and relative sizes of the components of our email network.

FIG. 2: The structure and relative sizes of the components of our email network.

FIG. 3: The maximum outbreak size on our network as vertices in the giant in-component are progressively removed either at random (dotted line) or in decreasing order of their out-degree (solid line).

FIG. 3: The maximum outbreak size on our network as vertices in the giant in-component are progressively removed either at random (dotted line) or in decreasing order of their out-degree (solid line).

We turn now to the specific issue of the spread of computer virus infections over email networks. A virtue of the approach taken here is that, since we have the entire network available, we can study infection dynamics directly without relying on approximate techniques such as differential equation models, statistical deduction, or computer simulation, as in most studies of human diseases. Here we make the most pessimistic assumption about email viruses, that they spread with essentially 100% efficiency. That is, we assume that they ruthlessly send copies of themselves to everyone listed in an address book, and that no recipients are immune to viruses because of antivirus software or other precautions. (The real-world situation is unlikely to be this bad; our calculations give a worst-case scenario.)

Consider then an email network of the type studied here. Since the network is directed, there does not necessarily exist a path that could carry a virus from vertex A to vertex B, even if A and B are connected by edges in the network, since the virus can in general only pass one way along each edge. The large-scale structure of a directed network can be represented by the “bow-tie diagram” of Broder et al. [11] depicted in Fig. 2. A strongly connected component of the network is defined to be any subset of vertices in which every vertex can be reached from every other. Typically the network has one giant strongly connected component (GSCC) which contains a significant fraction of the entire network, as well as a number of smaller strongly connected components. The GSCC is represented by the circular middle part of the bow-tie in the figure. Then there is a giant in-component, which comprises the GSCC plus those vertices from which the GSCC can be reached but which cannot themselves be reached from the GSCC. We can think of the latter set as being the vertices “upstream” of the GSCC. They are represented by the left part of the bow-tie. There is also a giant out-component consisting of the GSCC plus “downstream” vertices (the right part of the bow-tie). In addition, there may be small groups of vertices that are connected to the giant components but not part of them (sometimes called “tendrils”) or that are not connected to the giant components at all. For our email network, the sizes of these various portions are given in Fig. 2. As we can see, the bow-tie is in this case quite asymmetric, with many more vertices downstream of the GSCC than upstream of it. Most of the downstream vertices are vertices that have zero out-degree themselves (i.e., no address book) but which are pointed to by members of the GSCC.

We can apply these insights to the spread of email viruses as follows. We concentrate on the giant components; infections in the small components will not spread to the population at large—it is the giant component that is responsible for large-scale virus epidemics. A virus outbreak that starts with a single vertex will become an epidemic if and only if that vertex falls in the giant incomponent. The number of vertices infected in such an epidemic (making the pessimistic assumptions above) is equal at least to the size of the giant out-component. It may be slightly larger than this if the epidemic starts in the region upstream of the GSCC and thus affects some vertices there also. For the particular case of our network, we find that epidemics have a minimum size of 9108 vertices and a maximum size of 9132, which means that about 54% of the network is at risk from epidemic outbreaks.

So how can we prevent these epidemics or reduce their size? Current virus prevention strategies correspond essentially to random “vaccination” of computers using anti-virus software [23]. Our network data however suggest that this is an ineffective way of combating infection. In Fig. 3 we show (dotted line) the maximum possible outbreak size in our network as vertices are removed at random from the network. As the figure shows, the outbreak size drops only very slowly as vertices are removed, a result similar to that seen in other networks [14, 18, 19].

On the other hand, previous work on other networks has shown that often a very effective strategy is targeted removal of vertices, i.e., identification and removal of the vertices most responsible for the spread of infection. For undirected networks, simply removing the vertices with highest degree often works well [11, 18, 19]. A similar but slightly more sophisticated strategy looks promising in the present case. In Fig. 3 (solid line), we show the result of removing vertices from the giant in-component of our network in decreasing order of out-degree (i.e., of address book size). As the figure shows, the maximum size of the epidemic in this case declines sharply as vertices are removed, until about the 10% mark, beyond which the epidemic is negligibly small and further removal achieves little. This suggests that if we can protect a suitably selected 10% of the vertices in the network, almost all vertices would become immune to an epidemic.

In this paper, we have analyzed data on the structure of the network formed by the email address books of computer users; it is over this network that email viruses spread. We have simulated the effect on virus propagation of both random and targeted “vaccination” of vertices and find that random vaccination, which is roughly equivalent to current anti-virus precautions, is expected to have little effect on virus spread. Targeted vaccination, on the other hand, looks much more promising. This suggests that we should be developing virus control strategies that take network structure into account. Similar concepts could also be used to identify high-risk vertices in the network and determine priority orderings for security upgrades. Because it is often infeasible to upgrade all hosts in a network simultaneously (especially if the upgrades require hardware modifications), and because upgrades are routine and continual, such a strategy could yield a substantial benefit in terms of reduced network vulnerabilities. For environments that use centralized and well-protected address books (e.g., to store addresses of interest to an entire community), the kind of analysis performed here could potentially be useful in analyzing and managing the tradeoffs between local and centralized address books. For example, how large can a locally stored address book grow before it becomes worth-while to accord it the same protections and restrictions as centralized databases?

The ideas considered here may also be applicable to other social networks that are exploitable by computer viruses or worms. Email networks are the most obvious example of such a network today, but other electronic services give rise to social networks as well. The techniques employed in our analysis of email network analysis could readily be applied in some of these new settings, and more speculatively, might be useful as a guide for engineering new network services in the future.

The authors thank Jeff Gassaway and George Kelbley for providing the data used for the analyses in this paper. This work was supported in part by the Office of Naval Research, the NSF, DARPA, and by the Intel Corporation.

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  22. This is a lower bound. Although data were collected for a wide variety of address book formats, there are probably still some that were missed.
  23. One should bear in mind that anti-virus software works only on known viruses, not new or unknown strains.
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