Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene An Ounce of Prevention

Protect yourself from computer viruses.

By James Hanback Jr.

MARCH 9, 1998:  With apologies to those in the medical profession, who understandably consider themselves a unique lot, I discovered recently that computer repair is a lot like being a doctor. The computer technician examines symptoms, runs tests, makes a diagnosis, and, if all goes well, provides a cure. All the while, he attempts to console the computer's frustrated user with assurances that everything possible is being done to rescue the machine and its data.

Never was this analogy more accurate than a few weekends ago, when I spent an entire Sunday rescuing a friend's computer from the clutches of a nasty, get-the-sledgehammer computer virus that could have easily wiped out an 80-page master's thesis, along with other important documents. The virus had apparently come down from the Internet and, once it infected the machine, would not allow applications such as Microsoft Word or Netscape Navigator to launch.

For just about every program on the hard drive, including those that came bundled with the original software, the computer just kept displaying a cryptic warning: "Application error: This program requires a newer version of Microsoft Windows."

The term "computer virus" has been around for a few years, but many people still aren't sure exactly what it means. A computer virus is not a biological organism that inhabits your hard drive. Nor can you catch a cold from your computer.

Rather, a computer virus is software that can be copied or downloaded to other computers. Once it is activated, the virus can destroy your hard drive data, affect your system files so your programs won't run, or annoy you in any number of other ways.

Viruses are created by computer programmers who have far too much time on their hands. Some of them are annoying but relatively harmless. Sometimes, they just pop up messages on your screen from time to time to demonstrate some aspect of the programmer's personality-"Your computer is hungry. Please insert a 5-and-a-quarter-inch hamburger," comes to mind.

Others, like the one I discovered on my friend's computer, will wreak havoc over your entire system and may cause you to lose years of work.

Unfortunately for my friend, the virus had already done its damage to her system, and the antivirus software-software that detects and cleans viruses from computers-on her computer would not run properly so that we could detect and eliminate the bugger.

Instead, we were forced to reinstall the Windows 3.1 operating system on her computer, plus all the applications that were affected by the virus. After eight hours and a lot of frustration, the computer was finally up and running again. I ran a fresh copy of the virus scanner and successfully captured and cleaned the contagion from the contaminated contrivance.

Or so I thought. Two days later the computer suddenly decided to journey abroad and started displaying all its text in French.

I fired off an e-mail to DesignWare Inc., the software company responsible for the infected file my friend had downloaded. I alerted them to the problem (in case they didn't already know about it) and suggested they clean their Web server before anyone else was forced to endure this particular virus. I also requested that they send an e-mail of apology to my friend.

The response I received was less than encouraging. "I have forwarded your e-mail to our operations manager," it read. It has been two weeks, and the operations manager still hasn't responded.

While it's likely that only a few computer users will experience a complete disaster as a result of a computer virus, anything downloaded off the Internet is a potential threat-as is any diskette from a different machine.

There are ways to protect yourself. Just like your mother said:

  • Forewarned is forearmed. if you do not have a virus scanner already installed on your system, get one. Virus detection software can be purchased in any computer software store or downloaded from the Internet. Two popular antivirus packages are Norton Antivirus (www.norton.com) and McAfee VirusScan (www.mcafee.com).

  • A stitch in time saves nine. If your virus scanner offers free updates via the Internet, make sure you take advantage of them. The free updates include detection software for viruses that may have surfaced after you purchased your original antivirus software. Virus detection software needs to be updated consistently to detect these new infections as they are discovered.

  • Don't take candy from strangers. People download software off the Internet all the time. And most people share data files across networks and on floppy diskette. It's important not to trust any file that comes in from a strange source. If you receive an unexpected file, delete it immediately and then scan your system. Take note of any mysterious messages or changes to your system while or after deleting the file.

Also, make sure you set your virus detection software so that it automatically scans any new files that are copied to your hard drive, either from media such as diskettes or when downloaded from the Internet. You may choose to have the software automatically scan your system each time you start it.

If all your protection fails, and your computer becomes infected, do exactly what you would do if you had a sick child. Call your local computer doctor. Remember that no system is immune, and there are some seriously bored computer programmers out there.

Bytes Welcome to Microsoft; here's a subpoena

Microsoft could be coming to Middle Tennessee. Or at least 16-20 Microsoft employees who currently work out of their homes may be coming together in one unit in Franklin.

Franklin Mayor Jerry Sharber made the announcement last week that the city is talking to the computer giant about office space, but he added that the number of employees would not be quite so big as reported by The Tennessean and some local broadcast news.

Microsoft executive account manager Mike Iwicki told the Scene last week that 16-20 Microsoft employees currently work from their homes in the Middle Tennessee area.

Microsoft is "continually looking for more efficient ways to serve its customers, so we look at places where we can create common office space," he said.

Previous media reports had bumped the number of employees up to a surprising 500, which Iwicki said was "substantially inaccurate."

"Microsoft's policy is not to comment on rumors or inaccurate stories," he added. "Whatever you read in the newspaper was grossly inaccurate." Iwicki also said that the deal with Franklin has not been finalized, so no site or other details have been settled upon.

Meanwhile, executives from online industry competitors America Online and MCI Communications have been subpoenaed to testify in the Microsoft antitrust dispute, according to recent reports on the Internet.

The Justice Department hopes to discover whether AOL and MCI favored Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser over Netscape Communication's Navigator when they packaged their software for the consumer.

Now that some of the big players are being confronted about their allegiance to Microsoft's Internet Explorer, it won't be surprising to see a resurgence of Netscape's browser integrated with other online software.

Let freedom ring

While the Supreme Court has affirmed the First Amendment rights of U.S. citizens on the Internet, it now appears that Thailand and a growing number of other Asian countries are attempting to control Internet content-or at least the content that comes into their countries.

According to reports on the Internet, Asian countries are constantly purchasing computer hardware for their schools and providing thousands of hours of online time. But by restricting the freedom of access to all areas of the Internet, they could risk restricting the full benefit of its educational power.

It's been said a hundred times, and it still rings true: Regulation of the Internet should take place in individual households-and it shouldn't be left up to any form of government.

Leftovers and corrections

When attempting to list a variety of Internet Service Providers covering the Nashville area, one will invariably be forgotten or left out. And during my "Rules of the Road" piece a couple of weeks ago, I left out a biggie.

My apologies to MindSpring, a national Internet Service Provider popular in Nashville. The free Internet service CyberCast also offers e-mail and Web services.

James Hanback Jr. is systems administrator for the Scene. He may be contacted by e-mail at james@nashscene.com.

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