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Computer Viruses are More Insidious Than Ever Before

By Jeff Bloom & Rob Kay

Over the years we've made an effort to inform our readers of the dangers that lurk on cyberspace. Once of our chief concerns has been the proliferation of computer viruses. Like their biological counterparts, these human-spread pathogens can wreck havoc in our lives. Because we're ever more dependent on computers and because of the increased sophistication of viruses, their dangers are more acute than ever.

Should Hawaii businesses be concerned about computer viruses? Most assuredly, they should. Can we take preventive measures to protect ourselves? Absolutely.

In the next several columns we will delve into the murky world of computer viruses and alert Pacific Business News readers as to what steps they might take to secure their home or business computers.

Viruses 101

Let's begin by defining exactly what a computer virus is:

Software that has been designed to replicate itself and then spread from computer to computer. Generally the virus multiplies surreptitiously and unless you have a software prophylactic, when it's discovered the damage has already been done. More often than not, the programming code that makes up the virus is disguised as an innocuous item and might be labeled something like "Happy Birthday". A virus that has been triggered almost always causes something unexpected and undesirable to happen and then automatically spreads to other computer users.

Viruses can be transmitted in any number of ways. This includes sending them as attachments to an e-mail message, by downloading infected programs from Internet sites, or they can latch onto you from an infected diskette or CD. Oftentimes, the sender of the email may not even be aware that he or she is wrecking havoc. There was a well known case last year of an executive in our government who spammed a virus to hundreds of technology professionals around the state. I'm sure this individual did not have malicious intentions but nonetheless the damage was done. A few months ago we even received an email with an attachment entitled "Joke" from a trusted friend whose system had been compromised. (The upshot is, if an attachment looks suspicious-don't open it!)

Whereas some viruses are activated as soon as their code is executed; others lie dormant until the right set of protocols or circumstances cause the computer to execute their code. While some viruses are innocuous or less harmful in intent, others can cause companies millions of dollars in damage. A nasty virus can erase your data or require you to reformat your hard drive.

Types of Viruses

Viruses come in three basic categories.

Macro viruses. These are considered "garden variety" viruses and generally do the least damage. A macro virus typically will infect a software program like Microsoft Word and perhaps insert unwanted words or phrases. To protect yourself from this type of infection it's best to know the origin of the programs you load on your computer and the source of any email attachment that you might open. The best way to protect yourself is by purchasing an anti-virus software program that screens e-mail attachments and scans your computer files periodically.

System or boot-record infectors. This type of virus is designed to infect executable code found on your hard drive or on a diskette. In technical terms, they latch themselves onto the DOS boot sector on diskettes or the Master Boot record on a hard drive. When the computer is running, files on the diskette can be read without activating the virus. Unfortunately, if you leave the diskette in your box, and then turn it off or reboot the OS, the computer will activate the boot disk virus, load it, and possibly render it temporarily impossible to use.

File infectors. These types of viruses attach themselves to program files - typically .COM or .EXE files although SYS, .OVL, .PRG, and .MNU files are also at risk. The upshot is, when the program is loaded, the virus is loaded as well. What happened to us last Christmas (yes, it even happens to the experts) is illustrative of the kind of disaster that can befall someone who comes across a file infector. We were given a diskette from a friend that contained a boot disk virus. It was inserted in a laptop and presto an entire collection of digital photos was wiped out!

Worms-A worm is a self-replicating virus that does not alter files but resides in active memory and duplicates itself. Worms use parts of an operating system that are automatic and usually invisible to the user. Worms tend to be noticed when their uncontrolled replication consumes system resources, slowing or halting other tasks.

Trojan Horses-- A program in which malicious or harmful code is contained inside apparently harmless program. These can lurk inside your machine until at some point a command from outside can "order" the program to execute a command such as mounting a Denial of Service attack on a website.

In our next column we'll continue to look at the wonderful world of computer viruses and examine what we can do to protect ourselves.

Jeff Bloom, SBA Small Business Person of the year, is the founder of Computer Training Academy/Network Resource Center, a computer education/consulting firm based in Honolulu. His contact is jeffb@cta.net or 839- 1200. Rob Kay is a Honolulu-based public relations practitioner who specializes in technology. He can be reached at rkay@pactechcom.com or 539-3627. Suggestions for column topics are welcomed.

Published June 8, 2001

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