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    Computer viruses aren't getting much ink these days, but they're still lurking out there

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #299  July 18, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    Maybe you thought computer viruses were a thing of the past. We even got through Michelangelo's birthday without the once-typical blast of media coverage. But while media technology sensationalism seems to be focusing on a combination of cyberhackers and pornography on the Internet, computer viruses are still around, and, if anything, more prevalent.

    For instance, an unknown number of the 10,000 subscribers to Mississauga-based CRS Online, one of Canada's biggest and best-known bulletin-board systems, recently found their computers infected with a new virus known as the Big Caibua (who thinks up these names, anyway?). They'd downloaded a file that ran a pornographic screensaver, but while displaying its on-screen graphics, it was working behind the scenes, creating new directories with obscene names, and corrupting random data on their hard drives.

    In 1986, there were four known viruses for IBM-type personal computers. Today, an average of 110 new viruses are created each month, for a rapidly increasing total that is already pushing 7,000 virus strains. IBM has suggested that, on average, companies running 1,000 or more PCs suffer a virus infection every couple of months; most, however, don't want to talk about their experiences, fearing that customers may be scared off.

    In the CRS Online cases, users became infected using software downloaded from a bulletin board system (BBS). For a number of years, BBSs have had a bad reputation as a potential source of virus infection. In fact, most BBSs take great pains to ensure that their files are virus-free. The Big Caibua virus was too new, however, to be detected by any of the major virus-protection programs. (You can be sure, however, that it will be found by the next version of these programs: most are upgraded every few months.)

    Despite the idea (and sometimes the reality) of spreading computer viruses over the phone, according to a survey recently released by the National Computer Security Association, 87 per cent of users reporting virus incidents traced them to an infected floppy disk. In many cases, this involved employees bringing infected disks from home to their work--often in order to install games on office machines.

    While the software industry, somewhat gleefully but also with some accuracy, ties the spread of viruses to software pirating, even shrink-wrapped software fresh from the store can be infected. In some cases, this has been the result of stores that shrink-wrapped returns, putting packages back on the shelf after they'd been unknowingly tried out on infected systems.

    However, there have also been several reported cases of viruses being inadvertently distributed by major software companies selling hundreds or thousands of infected disks. A few years ago, one major manufacturer was embarrassed after handing out a large number of infected free demo disks at a Comdex trade fair.

    As with sexually transmitted disease, there is no absolute security against computer viruses short of total abstinence, which would mean not loading any new software and never using a floppy disk without formatting it first. That's an unrealistic option.

    However, virus-protection software provides a great deal of protection. A basic anti-virus program has been included with recent versions of DOS, for example. Commercial programs are available from a number of companies, big and small. Some of the best programs are available as shareware, and can be obtained through a modem from local bulletin board systems. (I like the Icelandic F-Prot, which is available free for personal use, and can be registered for the reasonable cost of $1 per machine per year.)

    But just getting a virus-protection package is much like keeping a condom in your wallet: it's only effective if you use it. Different computer users are at different levels of risk, depending on their activities. If you install lots of software, bring floppies from home to work, get software from friends and co-workers or over a modem, you're at a higher risk for infection: upgrade your virus protection software regularly. F-Prot is updated every 90 days to include protection from new virus types. Symantec's popular commercial Norton Anti-Virus lets registered users add new virus description files from its on-line bulletin board in California, or will mail them regularly for an added-cost subscription.

    Even though they are last year's media villain, computer viruses are still around, as dangerous as ever, but they needn't mean the end of computing as we know it. With proper precautions, you can minimize the risk of an attack, and learn to control one if it happens.

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