Cyberculture: The truth about Computer Viruses

Fear is a powerful force. It can lead countries to war, cause panic-buying in supermarkets or lead you to totally change your life to avoid nasty consequences. The British press is by no means the biggest culprit of fear-mongering, but you only need to think about swine flu to realise how a fuss can be made over nothing.

In the last ten to fifteen years computer technology has been revolutionised, and given rise to a worldwide horror: the computer virus. You may have never had a run-in with a virus, your computer may be wrought with spyware at this very moment, but everyone has a fear that some malicious software is going to come along and delete their hard drive.

Of course, we have built up defences over the years, and people spend hundreds on the latest Norton Protection every year, but how serious really is the danger?

A ‘virus’ by definition is an infectious agent which spreads (like wildfire they say) until it runs into resistance and is killed. In computer terms there are some well-know types of virus, such as the Trojan Horse, the Worm and Logic Bombs.

Trojan Horses (or Trojans) don’t reproduce by infecting other files, but normally hide within downloaded files from services like Bittorrent etc, and while Worms (more common in Hollywood blockbusters like Swordfish than the real world) replecate themselves fiercely they are vulnerable to anti-virus software. Logic bombs destroy data on the computer and are hidden within segments of other problems and lie dormant until activated rather than reproducing themselves.

Other malicious software (referred to as malware) includes things like spyware and adware is not truly a virus, since it does not behave in the same way, but can still have a negative effect on your computer.

The most important thing to remember is that the likelihood of the average internet user running into a virus capable of causing critical damage to their computer is extremely rare. Despite the media coverage last year of the number of computer viruses in circulation topping 1million (TimesOnline), users have never been more protected.

Any recent operating system has its own anti-virus defence in place, before you even look into the plethora of different programs claiming to over you 100% protection, ranging in price from free to over £100 for just a year’s coverage.

The types of virus regular PC users may come across (from personal experience) are as follows:

Account ‘Hacking’ – You know the story, you’re chatting away to your friends and loved ones on MSN or Yahoo Messenger and suddenly it signs you out. With an eyebrow raised, you log in again, only to be confronted with angry messages from people saying “What was that link you sent me?! What have you done???” Either your account really has been hacked by a geek tucked away somewhere in the world, or you’ve given out your email address somewhere and without realising given them access to your messenger, allowing an automated program to spread the infection to all of your contacts.

Cure: Sometimes they can be caused by dodgy plug-ins to your messenger, so get rid of them, if changing your password doesn’t help then you’ll have to make a new account – sorry!

Pop-ups – Not true viruses, but pop-ups are definitely annoying, these days advertising agencies have realised that with certain browsers (particularly Firefox 3 with Adblock Plus), pop-ups and banner ads can be blocked out entirely, meaning users can go about the

ir daily business without being tempted by a “Free IQTest” or “Win £36,746 NOW! New Winners Every Hour”.

Cure: Free software ‘Ad-awarte’ by Lavasoft is a highly recommended and effective way of getting rid of spyware, the tiny programs which cause pop-ups when you aren’t even using your browser, providing you are connected to the internet, sometimes general virus-checkers can miss this smaller programs since they don’t do anything nasty to the computer.

Hoax Emails – Occasionally you may get an email saying “Warning Your Computer is infected with a Virus, click HERE for a free Virus check” or from a company you know and trust asking you to verify your details. If you give out your details you could land in real trouble.

Cure: First of all, you cannot get a virus and destroy your computer by simply opening an email, it can’t happen, no matter how many times you open it. It can send it on to all your contacts however, so still be careful. For hoax emails all you need to do is not give out your information, respectable companies never ask for personal details via email, and be sensible, why would you get an email saying you not only have a virus, but a ‘free’ way of getting rid of it.

The internet can be a dangerous place if you’re careless, but in truth there aren’t horrible people lurking behind every corner, people are genuinely nice and genuine, just like you and me, so try to see through the bad press, be sensible and you shouldn’t have any problems.

For more information on the myths surrounding computer viruses check out this report by Triumvirate from way back in 2000, just after the biggest hoax of all – The Millennium Bug. You can also check out the relevant Wikipedia article and a useful virus dictionary from Jayashree Pakhare

Oh and NEVER, EVER pay for Norton…you can get AVG for free and it’s better, faster and more effective.

Happy browsing, check out this video from Weird Al Yankovic which sums up just how crazy the virus fear is.

James Michael Parry

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