Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Should Viruses Threaten Us?

The last time I, and anyone I know, was infected by a computer virus it was almost 10 years ago when 1,44MB (3,5'') diskettes where in fashion. Back then, viruses where a true menace since the Internet was not popular enough and the most common file exchange method where these diskettes. At the same time Anti-virus programs had not yet proven their necessity and as a result, a single diskette (used as a means of file transfer) could infect many many computers.

Users trusted a diskette from a person simply because they trusted the person. That was totally wrong since they couldn't really know where it had been before. And without an Anti-virus or any experience on the matter they could, without knowing, use an infected computer and possibly infect others simply by sharing their files with them. It really was like the human HIV virus. The was a big problem.

Since then, many things have changed. For starters, most computers don't have 3,5'' drives any more! Of course there's the Internet which is an even worse potential point of infection since you are practically exchanging files with the entire planet but one would expect computers users had grown wiser.

In our modern world where computers come with pre-installed Anti-virus systems is it acceptable for the average user to be infected or, worse, to infect others?

Today a friend of mine was telling me how his PC got infected by an .mp3 file someone gave him. What it did was create a hidden folder every time that file was played and fill that folder with random data over and over until it took up all the space left in his hard disk. He had to format the disk and install everything from scratch to fix it. He also mentioned another case where a virus cloned itself at runtime and consumed all the CPU time, thous making the system freeze. Rebooting didn't help him since it loaded itself during boot. He had to format the disk again.

While he was talking to me I couldn't help thinking "is this right? is this supposed to happen?". I mean, for a moment I thought I was 10 years in the past exchanging diskettes. I really couldn't believe that a computer user in the year 2006 did not have an Anti-Virus system installed and, worse, that a large computer users group did not shield themselves against such old and common threats.

From what I understood he didn't care much about the incident and, in his mind, thought of this as a totally normal thing because "computers break" and you have to "format them quite often to keep them in shape". Is he mad?! First of all, formatting your master hard drive should be the absolutely last choice you have and, frankly, I can't really think of a problem that demands this kind of solution. Secondly, I can't get over this belief that computers are "mysterious machines that may refuse to start or work properly for no reason". I believe we had almost two decades to familiarize with them so if you feel funny around computers maybe you are falling behind. Try to keep up!

In my little Utopian mind I picture a world where no viruses are left lying around just because everyone is keeping them out of their PC.

Sadly viruses are out there and are more mean and destructive as ever and we've simply forgotten about them. We feel safe when we shouldn't. We may not hear about them or see them before us simply because they are in hibernation. The first chance they get though, we'll know they are there the nasty way.

To sum up, unfortunately we haven't gotten rid of viruses so it's better to keep an eye for them since all it takes is a low-tech piece of code that will get you in trouble when you least expect it. Things can change and will change as soon as we treat our computers with responsibility and understanding.

P.S.: This page has been scanned for known viruses and found clean :)

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