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    As the worms turn: computers don't spread viruses, people do

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First published in Business in Vancouver February 17-23, 2004 Issue 747 High Tech Office column

    As I write this, computers infected by the MyDoom virus have, as promised, barraged SCO's Web site with access-requests, effectively shutting it down. SCO has made itself widely unloved in technology circles by filing a wave of lawsuits claiming it owns snippets of computer code used in the popular open source Linux operating system. MyDoom, following on the heels of the Bagle virus, has been characterized as the fastest-spreading computer virus to date; at its peak, according to security firm F-Secure, it accounted for 20 to 30 per cent of all e-mail traffic. Unlike infections of a year or two ago, however, it doesn't seem to have knocked any corporate networks offline.

     Like many other e-mail viruses, MyDoom spreads itself through hijacking Outlook and Outlook Express e-mail address books, but it also spreads through popular file-sharing networks such as Kazaa. While infected computers are not directly damaged, they try to spread the virus further and participate in mass denial-of-service attacks. A variant of MyDoom targeting Microsoft's Web site was apparently less successful. As well, infected systems are open to commands from a remote attacker.

     Sounds nasty, all right. Network Associates estimated that 400,000-500,000 computers had been infected worldwide. And that's the saddest statistic of all. That's because these recurrent waves of computer viruses and worms really aren't about hackers. And they're not really about flaws in Microsoft's software.

     The real story is about ordinary computer users like you and me. Despite years of warnings in columns such as this, half a million of us, receiving an attachment-bearing e-mail message from a stranger - or in this case, a bogus error message - blithely opened the attachment, behaviour that eWeek columnist Larry Seltzer compared to sticking a finger in an electric socket.

     It took antivirus software vendors several hours between when the virus started spreading and when they published updated software patches to protect users from MyDoom. And it takes even longer before these patches filter out to all users potentially at risk. But blaming the antivirus vendors is just looking for a scapegoat; at the keyboard of every one of those half-million infected computers there was a user who knowingly opened an attachment received from a stranger.

     Maybe I'm wrong, and none of you let your computers become infected. In that case, I apologize for nagging. But I received a couple of hundred infection-bearing messages in the past week, and they must have come from someone!

     I'd like this to be the last column nagging about viruses that I have to write. The advice is all pretty standard stuff. If you're a Windows user, install an antivirus program and keep it up to date. For home users, I'm currently recommending the free Avast (

     If you're a Windows user, consider using an alternative to Microsoft's Outlook or Outlook Express for e-mail. Your computer could still be infected if you open a virus-laden attachment, but at least you won't spread the infection further.

     Consider other options than Windows like Linux or Apple's Macintosh. You'll still be barraged by the same infected messages, but they won't be able to infect your computer. When shopping for an Internet Service Provider, look for one that filters out virus-infected e-mail before it reaches your in-box. Uniserve, for instance, does this. Why don't all ISPs?

     Break yourself of the e-mail attachment habit. Don't send documents as attachments; copy the contents and paste them into the body of your e-mail message. And don't open unexpected attachments. Certainly not from strangers, but even if they apparently come from your best friend. Or even from me. 

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan