As if Microsoft's announcement yesterday that it's laying off 5,000 employees (the first such sackings in the company's 34-year history) wasn't bad enough, now some security analysts are predicting the worst is yet to come as the highly infectious Conficker worm continues to thrive after already striking as many as 10 million Windows PCs worldwide. The "malware" (as opposed to software) may be activated by its creators (who remain at large) at some later date, causing legions of infected PCs to digitally attack and disable other computers.

Conficker—which goes by many names, including Win32/Conficker.A, Mal/Conficker-A, Downadup and Kido—is a worm that infects other computers across a network by exploiting a vulnerability in Windows, Microsoft warns in a security bulletin on its Web site. If successful, the worm could allow others to remotely access victims' computers to steal information or to load their own, malicious software.

"Some reports say the worm is a dud, but I believe that it's simply 'sleeping' and may be woken up at a future date to execute some set of evil instructions," Eric Schultze, CTO of computer security firm Shavlik Technologies in Roseville, Minn., told The Register.

Different versions of Conficker can spread between computers by installing themselves on a person's removable memory stick and attacking any computer in which it's inserted. Worse, the worm can detect when someone is trying to download security software designed to remove worms, including Microsoft's own Windows Defender, and block it from loading. The worm has also shown the ability to gain access to computers with weak passwords simply by guessing what they are (hint: if your password is "12345," Conficker will be able to break into your system).

Microsoft has since October offered a software update to fix this vulnerability, but it's clear that the millions of computer users infected didn't bother to download Microsoft's patch. The company advises consumers to frequently change their passwords and to update security regularly to make it tougher for the worm to get them.

The Washington Post reports that the layoffs, which represent 5 percent of the company's workforce, will take place over 18 months and include employees throughout Microsoft (research and development, marketing, sales, finance, legal, human resources, and information technology). The company said in a statement that the move is designed to save $700 million between now and the end of its 2009 fiscal year (which ends June 30, 2009).

©; dieter Spears