Are hackers trying to get into your computer right now? And what are they up to? A recent university study reveals that computers with internet access are attacked an average of every 39 seconds.

Engineer Michel Cukier, at the University of Maryland, profiled the behavior of “brute force” hackers, who use simple software-aided techniques to randomly attack large numbers of computers and discovered which usernames and passwords are tried most often, and what hackers do when they gain access to a computer. He says, “Most of these attacks employ automated scripts that indiscriminately seek out thousands of computers at a time, looking for vulnerabilities.” In other words, no one is targeting you specifically. But that doesn’t mean you won’t get hacked: “Our data provide quantifiable evidence that attacks are happening all the time to computers with Internet connections,” Cukier says. “The computers in our study were attacked, on average, 2,244 times a day.”

Cukier and two of his graduate students, Daniel Ramsbrock and Robin Berthier, set up weak security on four Linux computers with Internet access, then waited to see what would happen. They discovered the vast majority of attacks came from relatively unsophisticated hackers using “dictionary scripts,” a type of software that runs through lists of common usernames and passwords attempting to break into a computer.

“Root” was the top username guess by dictionary scripts, and was attempted 12 times as often as the second-place “admin.” Successful ‘root’ access would open the entire computer to the hacker, while ‘admin’ would grant access to somewhat lesser administrative privileges. Other top usernames in the hackers’ scripts were “test,” “guest,” “info,” “adm,” “mysql,” “user,” “administrator” and “oracle.” Cukier advises that all of these should be avoided as usernames.

The researchers found the most common password-guessing ploy was to reenter or try variations of the username. Some 43% of all password-guessing attempts simply reentered the username. The username followed by “123” was the second most-tried choice. Other common passwords attempted included “123456,” “password,” “1234,” “12345,” “passwd,” “123,” “test,” and “1.”

Once hackers gain access to a computer, they swiftly act to determine whether it could be of use to them. During the study, the hackers’ most common sequence of actions was to check the accessed computer’s software configuration, change the password, check the hardware and/or software configuration again, download a file, install the downloaded program, and then run it.

What are the hackers trying to accomplish? “The scripts return a list of ‘most likely prospect’ computers to the hacker, who then attempts to access and compromise as many as possible,” Cukier says. “Often they set up ‘back doors’-undetected entrances into the computer that they control-so they can [use them] for profit or disreputable purposes.”

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