Your Influence Counts ... Use It! The SPOTLIGHT by Liberty Lobby

Reprinted from, home of The SPOTLIGHT archive

Computer Jokers Create A False Plague

Almost everyone who subscribes to an Internet e-mail list has probably received a message, at some point, which warns of a computer virus which is spreading through the Internet. Usually, the author of the message tells you to not read an e-mail if the subject line reads: "Good Times," or some other such phrase. If you do read that message, so the warning goes, some insidious computer virus will take over your computer, destroy all your files, then replicate itself in the form of e-mail to people in your e-mail address book, which get automatically sent out from you to infect all your friends.

The e-mail "warning" goes on to supposedly quote some alert issued by some official sounding agency, which describes how the so-called virus does its dirty deeds. The latest "warnings" I've read refer to viruses called Deyeenda or Penpal. Often, the message is forwarded to me by a well-meaning patriot.

Has this happened to you? If so, then welcome to the club. The fact is, your precious time has been wasted on a hoax. I put off writing about this subject, hoping that it would go away. But it hasn't. It just keeps coming around, time after time. Now, I'll try to do my part here to set things straight about how computer viruses are spread.

First, some background for the uninitiated: There are always a few miscreants who can't seem to stand the idea of people having a good time or being productive. You know the type; the bully who comes along and stomps on your sand castle at the beach; the creep who yells "fire" in a crowded theater. The electronic age has brought us techno-terrorists who write computer viruses.

Computer viruses have been around for years. With the advent of the concept of "shareware" -- try before you buy software spread via computer bulletin board systems -- it became easy for n'eer-do-wells to cause widespread misery for computer owners. Spreading a virus is easy for a bad guy. What he does is to write the virus software, then "attach" it to a program that an unsuspecting user later runs on his computer. It could be a program he wrote, or he could take shareware already available, modify that program to hide his virus inside, then pass it along. (By the way, there have also been some commercial software packages which were vehicles for spreading computer viruses, much to the embarrassment of their manufacturers.)

The key to this scenario is that the victim has to actually execute the software containing the virus for it to be activated, thus infecting the user's computer Merely copying the software file to your computer doesn't infect it.

Only when the program runs does it take control of the computer's devices, so that it can install itself, usually into the operating system of the computer. A variation of this scenario is macro files, such as those used in some of the word processing programs. Since they are a form of executable program, they also are a means for spreading viruses.

The advent of computer viruses also spawned the cottage industry of virus detection and prevention. There are several companies that specialize in software to detect and eradicate viruses that infect computers. There are also programs which run as background processes to "inoculate" your computer against virus infestation.

Let me reiterate: Merely copying a file to your computer's hard disk, or merely reading an e-mail message, do not allow viruses to infect your computer. Even if someone sends you an infected program (or if you download one from the Internet), your computer won't be harmed by it until the program is executed. And if you are smart (and follow my advice), before installing any software you get from the Internet, you will check the files using one of the popular anti- virus programs available. The most well known of the anti-virus programs are McAfee Viruscan, Norton Anti-Virus, and Dr. Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit.

My advice to those who receive e-mail concerning virus warnings is if you are really concerned, you can check the warning out with one of the virus protection vendors. They maintain a list of viruses which describe the various strains. Then, forward that e-mail to the bit bucket. Don't pollute other people's e-mail in boxes with these chicken little messages.

By installing virus protection, and making backups of your disk at frequent intervals, you can rest easy, and not be tempted to fall victim to the great virus hoax.