Computer Viruses: How Serious
Is the Threat?
by Reid Goldsborough
“My computer is acting up. It
must be a virus.” You’ve undoubtedly heard comments like this, or even thought
this yourself. In fact, most computer glitches are caused by software conflicts
or user error.
Viruses aren’t as common as other
computer problems. They’re found in about 0.15 percent of emails, according to
the latest figures from MessageLabs (<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>www.messagelabs.com), a provider of
Internet security products that analyzes more than 180 million emails worldwide
each day for its business clients.
That makes viruses less prevalent
than phishing attacks that try to trick you into revealing your credit card,
banking, or other personal information, which make up about 0.45 percent of
emails. And viruses are far less prevalent than the most common email problem,
which is still spam—those unsolicited, untargeted commercial messages sent in
bulk that constitute a whopping 44.96 percent of all emails.
But viruses do get a lot of
attention, and it’s easy to see why. They have an ominous and mysterious aura.
Some can do serious damage, including wiping out all the data on your hard
drive. And some that don’t do overt harm scare you instead, with a pop-up text
message such as “Gotcha,” a photo of a raised middle finger, or a sinister
audio or video file.
Computer viruses are simply small
computer programs. Like human viruses, computer viruses can replicate,
spreading like a disease from one computer to another through email or, less
commonly, through infected CD-ROM discs, USB drives, music and other
file-sharing networks, and Web sites.
All indications are that viruses
are typically written by pranksters in their teens and twenties, according to
virus experts. Some are written by truly disturbed individuals, the kind of
sociopaths who indiscriminately slash tires. Some may be written in a more
formalized way, by members of organized crime families or foreign terrorist
groups. And some are intended as “good viruses” to delete other viruses but may
inadvertently cause harm by, for instance, deleting a vital system file by
Viruses may be written from
scratch by programmers. Or they may be created with virus-writing kits that
require no programming knowledge. Some virus writers write viruses for the
intellectual challenge, never intending to release them. Some of these viruses
get released accidentally. Web sites and online chat rooms exist where virus
writers ask questions, trade tricks, and boast of their exploits.
The first line of defense against
viruses, as with every potential computer disaster, is to make regular backups
of the vital data stored on your hard drive. Ideally, you should back up
periodically to a medium that’s not continuously connected and accessible, to
prevent a virus from infecting it too.
The next safety step is to use
antivirus software. Top programs include Symantec’s Norton AntiVirus, available
separately or as part of other Symantec products (<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>www.symantec.com), and McAfee VirusScan
also available separately or as part of a suite including other products.
Antivirus programs scan relevant
files looking for the specific programming code, or signatures, of known
viruses. They also look for common behaviors of viruses. To avoid conflicts,
you should use only one antivirus program at a time.
Another excellent program, which
can be used in conjunction with antivirus and other security programs, is
Spybot Search & Destroy (www.safer-networking.org). It removes spyware and other
malware and is a superb example of international altruistic entrepreneurship.
The program is written and
supported by German software engineer Patrick Kolla and the volunteers who work
with him, and distributed by Kolla’s Irish company Safer Networking Ltd. It has
won many awards for its effectiveness and is free for noncommercial use, with
support by donations. Fees for corporate use depend on the size of your
In addition to using software
shields to protect yourself, you should follow the time-honored rules about
email attachments. Don’t open any from people you don’t know. If you receive an
attachment from someone you do know but you weren’t expecting it, it can be
good practice to contact the sender to verify that the person actually intended
to send it.
It’s also important to keep your
operating system up to date, ideally directing it to download bug fixes and
other updates automatically. And it’s equally important to keep your antivirus
and other security software up to date by doing the same.
Users of Microsoft Windows and
Windows programs are most vulnerable to viruses, in part because of these
programs’ market share and in part because there’s a hostility in the virus
underground toward the big business that Microsoft represents. But Apple
Macintosh and Linux users also need to be careful.
Reid Goldsborough is a
syndicated columnist and author of the book <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.