- The Washington Times - Monday, June 3, 2002

Some slightly heretical thoughts on hackers and computer viruses:The problem isn't nearly as bad, for individuals anyway, as the media (and scare mongers on the Internet) would have you believe, unless you are completely brainless. In which case you just flat have a problem.
Friends of mine run computer operations with big mailing lists (by subscription; they aren't spammers). Some of these sites carry political content that angers some folk. In short, they are obvious targets for not-nice people, and in fact report receiving 40 or 50 viruses a week. None of the three has ever been affected. How do they avoid it?
By doing a few simple things, they said, and by not doing a few really stupid things. (Like opening any attachment, ever.)
First, hackers or, better term, crackers.Hacking, by people who are good at it, is phenomenally technical and, as most security geeks will tell you, the only sure security is to unplug your computer and perhaps blow it up. You can, however, make your computer hard enough to break into that anyone who could won't bother. Sure, the CIA could do it, but it doesn't want to. (They have their own dirty pictures at Langley.)
Most hackers are low-level kids who are scared of girls, so they live with their computers and try to get even. Many are "script kiddies," who download lame hacking software from the Internet and don't understand it. They're not hard to thwart. You don't have to know how the bits and bytes work. Just get a personal firewall (software that sits between you and the Internet and "guards the door.") Zone Alarm, from www.zonelabs.com, is free and good. Go there and download it. Basically it makes your computer invisible it doesn't appear to exist when low-level hackers are looking for people online to molest. It's a tad techy, but not very. Get a friendly geek to help set it up if need be.
Want to see whether your computer is vulnerable? Go to Shields Up! (www.grc.com) and follow the directions. This is a site that will test for common weaknesses and tell you that you have them. (If you have Zone Alarm, it will tell you that it can't find a computer where you are. That's the right answer.)
For most individuals, home users for example, this is enough.
Second, viruses: Overwhelmingly, these are caught by opening attachments. Don't do it, ever, if you can avoid it.Tell people to paste text into the body of the e-mail.Many viruses hijack the address books of your friends, so don't open attachments from friends if you can help it.If you have to do it, tell your friends to put "**/" or something similarly recognizable somewhere in the subject line. A virus won't know to do that, so you can at least be pretty sure your friend sent the attachment on purpose.
Curiosity is the virus writer's best friend. If the subject line says, "Hahaha Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," you don't want to see Snow White."Underage Cheerleaders in the Buff" is a splendid candidate for deletion. If in doubt, don't open an attachment. If not in doubt, don't open it. Unless you really have to.
The appearance of legitimacy means exactly nothing. "Undeliverable mail the attachment is the original message" sounds real.You want to see what e-mail of yours wasn't delivered.Bzzzzt! You're fried. Don't open "patches" from "Microsoft." They aren't.
Next, get good antivirus software Norton Antivirus at www.symantec.com is good, as is McAffee's product at www.mcaffee.com. (Both of these sites are excellent sources of info on current viruses, how to improve security, and so on.) Keep the software updated and make sure all protective features (e.g., script blocking) are on. It's amazing how many people don't have antivirus programs.These programs won't stop a virus so new that the company hasn't had time to find a cure. So don't open things anyway.
Finally, in Internet Explorer click on Tools, then Internet Options, Security, and Custom. Here you have to know a bit about security, but if you don't you probably know someone who does. You can get arguments over just what to turn off I did in writing this but my approach is to have Internet Explorer prompt me before doing just about anything listed in the Custom menu. At a site I trust (e.g., IBM) I say yes to everything. If I don't know the site, I say no.
For most people, most of the time, that should do it.


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