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Geek Speak column
[Published in the Key West Citizen Locals Guide on July 30, 2010.]
We humans must protect ourselves from accident and illness by leading healthy lives and being careful. What’s true for our biological health is also true for our cybernetic companions – our personal computers. Back in the late 70s when Steve Jobs introduced Apple computers, and a few years later when IBM and Microsoft introduced the PC, the concept of “Safe Computing” was hardly imagined. But the lowlifes seeking new paths for their vandalism and greed took note.
By the time I joined the OS/2 design team in the mid-80s, there had already been virus outbreaks on Apple computers and on PCs. In those days a personal computer would often start up (boot) from a floppy disk, and insidious hackers had already used them to spread viruses such as “Elk Cloner” (on Apples) and “Brain” (on PCs). The new OS/2 operating system featured better virus protection, but Microsoft soon dropped their support for OS/2 and continued with newer (less secure) versions of Windows.
Floppy viruses faded along with the use of floppy disks. But the rise of email and the Worldwide Web provided new avenues, dramatically increasing the spread of viruses. The “Trojan horse” became the carrier of choice, often aided in infection by “worms”. A Trojan horse is an enticing package that hides a destructive payload. A worm is a scheme where a running virus seeks out other unprotected network-attached computers to directly infect. Blocking worms is mostly a configuration & set-up issue, but Trojan horses require YOU to maintain constant vigilance.
Your computer’s first and most basic line of defense is an up-to-date security package. The most common ones are Symantec’s “Norton Security” and the various McAfee packages. These are often pre-installed on newly purchased computers. (Note that these pre-installed packages are trial versions that will require you to pay for a subscription to remain effective.) Other commercial security packages include AVG, BitDefender, and TrustPort. All of these provide reliable security; you’ll need to compare current prices as part of your evaluation.
Note that some of the commercial packages (e.g., AVG and BitDefender) offer a free version. These may be a slightly older version, or one that doesn’t include all of the features. Though many people swear by the free version of AVG, I recommend springing for the full function most up to date package.
Here’s some good news: you’re probably eligible for a full-function FREE package right now. Your internet provider is very concerned about virus damage, so it probably will give you a full security suite when you have paid for their services. Comcast offers the full Norton Security Suite as a free download onto all of your home computers if you use Comcast internet access. ATT gives you a McAfee suite if you use their higher-speed DSL connection. If you use another provider, check with them – it can save you a purchase and the ongoing subscription fee.
Okay, you’ve got your security package installed and running and it’s watching out for any worms or hackers who might be trying to connect directly to your computer over the net. And it’s scanning your system regularly to look for viruses that may have been inadvertently downloaded. And it’s screening your email for attachments that contain known viruses. It’s probably even helping you avoid spam. But are you completely safe?
It’d be great if you were, but new Trojan horses are being created every day, looking for those who may let their defenses slip. The security system may not be ready for the newest ones and could let one through if you allow it. Or a cleverly disguised web page form that looks legitimate to you could be waiting for you to let your guard down. These all prey on human nature, attempting to scare you into providing information you shouldn’t. Or try to invoke your inner greed demon? The old saying “if it sounds too good to be true it probably is “ is still very true, but many are tempted by promised easy money. It’s important to learn how to recognize all of these and respond appropriately.
Unfortunately we’ve run out of space here, so we’ll visit that topic in a future column. In the meantime, BE SAFE
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