Imagine you’ve written a 20-page essay. It took four months to research and write.
Now imagine the next major computer virus hits. Only this time, instead of attacking Microsoft, it attacks your whole home computer. Every bit of data on your hard drive-everything, including that undoubtedly “A” caliber essay-is destroyed.
One of the best ways to protect your computer against viruses is to install antivirus software. After the recent Blaster attack the university has been advertising free Norton Antivirus software for faculty, staff and students at www.antivirus.utoronto.ca. To access it you must have a UTORid e-mail address.
Terry Jones, an information technology analyst at the university’s Computer and Networking Services, says viruses like the Blaster Worm exploit defects in an operating system and send carefully crafted network messages to the computer, infecting it. It is called a worm because it uses the infected computer to infect as many other computers as it can.
Jones says creating this type of virus has been made easier for would-be virus writers because Microsoft now announces when they find a flaw in their system and offers the subsequent solution-usually a “patch.” He points out Blaster was created only a month after one of these announcements. “This is the worst kind of infection because simply having your computer turned on and connected to the Internet makes it vulnerable to infection,” he says.
But, he points out it is also one of the easiest types to prevent through automatic updates from the operating system manufacturer (Windows Update from Microsoft, for example)
Trinity College has stopped using Microsoft Outlook Express for email, says computer services co-ordinator, Gilbert Verghese. “We are using Mozilla or Pegasus instead. This has virtually eliminated e-mail viruses among staff,” he says. “We recommend the same for students.”
Because of the Blaster attack (and perhaps partly due to the influx of students in September) hundreds of computers on campus were infected, and thousands more affected, but the university was never shut down. The university’s campus gateway has what is called “port blocking” that prevents outside computers from infecting campus computers, Jones says. So Blaster may have arrived via other means such as an infected laptop brought onto campus or an infected home computer relocated to a campus residence, for example.
Jones also says e-mail handling is crucial to avoiding viruses. “People should understand that companies like Microsoft do not send out fixes and patches via e-mail,” he says.
“It still amazes me,” he says, “That even people who are technically inclined call me up saying, ‘Hey, I’m having trouble opening this e-mail from Microsoft that says please apply this patch.'”
He urges extreme caution when opening any attachment, even ones that appear to come from friends. “People really shouldn’t need to be reminded of this…” he says, “E-mail is not a secure medium.”
First-year Arts & Science student, Danny Blank, could have used a reminder a few months ago when he opened an attachment he “wasn’t supposed to” on his family’s home computer. “I screwed it up,” he says, “And now we get tons of spam.”
He says he may try out the Norton Antivirus software the university is offering.
Second-year English and History student Jolan Canrinus says he doesn’t have antivirus protection but he’s not worried.
Canrinus admits he is aware of the university’s free Norton Antivirus software offer. “I think I saw a pamphlet while I was waiting in line for my student card,” he says, “I read it was free and thought about picking it up.”
Even though Blaster did not wipe out hard drives, there are many viruses that do -Code Red is one example. So it is fitting that Jones’ last piece of advice when it comes to protecting yourself from viruses is to back up your computer. “Back up your machine using a writable CD, a floppy, a zip disc or a flash drive,” he says. “CD writers are installed in most machines today, so there is really no excuse.”
Calvin C. Gotlieb is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Computer Science. His areas of specialty are information systems and the social effects of computers. Although he has never had anyone blame a virus for a late essay, he says he has heard the high-tech equivalent of “the dog ate my homework” excuse.
“I maintain a class newsgroup online, for students to trade information and ask me questions, among other things. I also use it to take attendance, asking the students to reply within 72 hours,” he says.
“Many of them didn’t respond, so I asked them next class. They said ‘Sir, I couldn’t reply because I had a virus and I wasn’t able to!'” he says.
But technology does have its benefits as well. “This is the first year I am hoping to get essays via e-mail so I can put it in the new plagiarism software program,” he says.