Facts and Fables about Computer Viruses

Article excerpt

While dangerous, they're not as contagious as rumor would have it.

Computer viruses are dangerous--there's no question about that. They can corrupt or erase data and even knock out a computer. But the contagion risk to users, contrary to rumor, is not as serious as some would have you believe. This article's goal is threefold: to confirm the danger of viruses, to set the record straight about the fables and to advise you on how to protect your computer systems.

Fact: Your computer can't get infected by a virus simply by displaying an e-mail message--but beware, there are exceptions, as you will discover later in this article. Viruses cannot invade your computer when you browse the Internet or download text files from electronic bulletin boards. Nor can they scan your computer for personal information. Not even the most virulent virus can destroy the electronic circuitry of your processor, but it can stall a computer by duplicating so many files that the hard disk quickly reaches capacity and halts.

The fables that have grown up about viruses are more than innocent, amusing stories; their impact is costly. Vast sums are spent for virus protection when there is little or no threat, and some people, in fear of viruses' contagion from the Internet, won't use e-mail. Even people who are otherwise computer savvy have been taken in by some outrageous stories about viruses, further inflaming the hysteria.

FRIGHTFUL, BUT FICTION

A rumor circulated on the Internet last year claiming that if you opened an e-mail message with the words "Good Times" in the subject line, a virus would invade your computer's memory and destroy its microprocessor by setting it into an "nth complexity infinite loop." That sounds frightful--but it's fiction. First of all, a virus is not transmitted by simply opening an e-mail message and there is no such thing as an "nth complexity infinite loop." Furthermore, a virus cannot destroy a computer; it can only destroy, duplicate or erase data on the hard disk or block some of the machine's functionality. To gain credibility for these scary stories, those who launched the hoax claimed that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had issued a public notice warning about the dreadful virus; in fact, the FCC does not disseminate information on viruses. The "Good Times" hoax spawned a variety of imitation alarms for such viruses as "Death 69," "Deeyenda," "Irina," "MMF," "Penpal Greetings," "Red Baron," "Valentines Greetings" and "Ghost.exe."

Some of the fables that have grown up around viruses border on the ludicrous. One has them as biological mutant strains of alien DNA floating in outer space waiting to wreak havoc on unsuspecting planets. Generally, computer hoaxes exhibit two common characteristics: (t) They make startling claims and assertions using complex sounding technical jargon. (2) They attempt to gain credibility by false association with authoritative sources.

If you want more authoritative technical information about viruses, here are three places on the Internet to check out:

* www.kumite.com/myths/

* ciac.llnl.gov/ (maintained by the Department of Energy)

* www.ncsa.com/ (maintained by the International Computer Security Association [ICSA])

BEYOND ANNOYANCE

A virus is a segment of programming code designed to attach itself to software. Once there, it waits to be executed and then sets to work doing what it was programmed to do. That could include displaying a humorous greeting on the screen, reformatting the hard disk (and thus erasing everything), terminating the execution of any number of software programs and intercepting transmissions to and from input/output devices.

Even though some viruses are designed just to amuse, as a practical matter all viruses should be considered malicious since they invade your computer environment without your invitation or knowledge. …