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Cyber Attack Raises Stakes for Tech

The software behemoth, which exited its recent third quarter with more than $25 billion in cash and investments, is certainly in a position to swallow a margin hit from its free software. Microsoft Security Essentials also offers a launch pad to sell additional software.

The media's obsession with cyber threats is keeping the issue of computer security firmly in the public eye, and that can only help Microsoft.

There is also the political will to tackle the online threats, potentially opening up a cash cow for tech companies. President Obama, for example, has promised to make cyber security a key priority for his government.

As for the recent events in Washington, fingers have already been pointed at North Korea as the source of the attack, which could explain why the U.S. and South Korea were targets. The image of Kim Jong-Il cackling deviously while hunched over a PC in Pyongyang, however, may ultimately prove wide of the mark.

"It's very hard to determine who is behind this because the hackers took over computers around the world," said Cluley. "It's just as easy for a kid in their bedroom to do this, as it is for an army."

In a world where an acne-ridden nerd can pose as big a cyber threat as The Great Leader, the need for digital security has never been higher. The question is whether consumers will still be willing to pay top dollar for anti-virus software when it becomes available for free. For companies like Symantec, McAfee, and Microsoft, the future is full of both massive risks and rewards.

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