In the Press

Bug Bytes

There's a good reason it's called a virus. It's spread through contact, appears unwanted, unannounced and uninvited, and it's capable of a range of damage from minor inconvenience to absolute meltdown. And, like everything that has anything to do with today's microchip technology, the increase in the presence of computer viruses - potentially destructive bits of computer code that can enter your system at home or work without you knowing it - is beyond dramatic.

It's startling.

"There's a lot you can do to protect yourself from viruses," said Glenn Berkshier, the network systems manager for Stellar Systems Inc. in Peoria, "but in the end there's never a guarantee that you can be virus-free forever."

A computer virus is a program designed to replicate and spread on its own, writes the Symantec AntiVirus Research Center, or SARC, a world leader in anti-virus technology. In 1986 there was one known virus; four years later there were 80. Now, between 10 and 15 new viruses pop up every day, and from December 1998 to October 1999 the total count increased from 20,500 to 42,000.

"Just as ways are being created to protect people from certain viruses, other people are finding ways to get around them," Berkshier said.

What the casual computeruser - your basic e-mailing, chat-rooming Web-surfer - calls a "virus" could actually be one of three separate but similar bugs, Berkshier said.

Viruses are computer programs designed to spread themselves from one file to another on a single computer, according to the SARC definition.

Trojan Horses, according to SARC, often are designed to cause damage or do something malicious to a system but are disguised as something useful. Unlike viruses, Trojan Horses don't make copies of themselves. Like viruses, they can cause significant damage to a computer.

A third type are worms. Worms, like viruses, replicate themselves but rely less on human behavior, according to the SARC definition. Instead of spreading from file to file, like a virus, they spread from computer to computer, infecting an entire system.

Last spring's ILOVEYOU bug, which was programmed in the Philippines and landed in e-mail boxes around the world, was actually a worm, not a virus. When opened, that particularly insidious bug would pass on to every address in a user's e-mail address book with the potential to destroy files and shut down systems.

"You kind of have an appreciation for the complexity of some of these viruses, even as destructive as they can be," Berkshier said. "You wonder what sort of genius-idiot would be smart enough to create the code but stupid enough to send it out with the potential it has to do so much damage."

We are not helpless victims of malicious viral code writers, said David Williams, the vice president for technology at Illinois State University. He oversees a network of 6,000 computers, which doesn't include those in student dorm rooms that also are wired to a single Internet provider. Possible viruses are monitored daily.

"The best prevention is communication and user education," Williams said. "And the best advice I'd give is the same as your parents told you - never talk to strangers. If you don't know where the e-mail attachment came from, your first inclination should be toward the delete button."

Students at ISU are given software at the beginning of the school year that loads their Internet connection and antivirus software. They are instructed on how to use it. Still, viruses can sneak in.

"The way viruses work means you are always one step behind the people who are writing them," Williams said. "That's why you must always be vigilant and as on top of it as you can be."

Williams and Berkshier offer the same tips. Use available anti-virus software. There are plenty available, the two most popular are Norton AntiVirus (produced by Symantec) and McAfee AntiVirus. They cost about $40 to $50, come with easy-to-install directions and can be modified to seek out new viruses as they are created. They also can scan hard drives for viruses at a predetermined interval of time. Berkshier said a sensible solution would be to have it scanned at least once a week.

And while it is in no way foolproof, both experts warn against opening e-mail from unfamiliar sources. They could contain piggy-backing computer code that could knock out files and wreak havoc with your system. Berkshier knew of one virus that would freeze your computer and then not allow you to reboot. Virtually a death sentence for your computer. He also described less catastrophic but still annoying viruses that perform stunts like displaying a box that reads "This machine is stoned" and freezing its functions for a moment. Another makes all the electronic characters on a screen cascade to the bottom.

"Why do people do it?" Berkshier asked. "Just to be stupid I guess. And because they can."

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Author: Scott Hilyard
Date: 9/12/2000
Publication: Peoria Journal Star

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