Computer viruses and you
Okay, show of hands, how many of you have gotten a computer virus in the past 3 months, or know someone who has? I’m willing to bet that there are a lot of hands going up. Or maybe you don’t want to look like a strange person by raising your hand up while alone in front of your computer. No matter. The point is that there have been a lot of new, really nasty, viruses (virii?) going around lately.
Everyone knows that computer viruses are an annoyance and a problem, but if you have an antivirus program, you’re safe, right? Well, sort of, but not quite. An antivirus program (any antivirus program) can only protect against so much. No antivirus program will catch everything that is out there, it’s simply a function of how they work. Various AV programs use different methods of scanning for viruses. The virus writers know this, and will write their viruses to exploit different weaknesses in the different programs. If they manage to sneak by just a few of the major AV programs, such as McAfee or Norton, then they’ve greatly increased the base of which they can infect.
There’s another reason that it’s difficult for an antivirus program to catch everything, and that is the nature of the conflict between people who write the viruses and the people who try and protect against them. That conflict is basically an arms race. The virus writers (the bad guys) come up with a new trick, or a new method, and then the antivirus writers (the good guys) have to scramble to come up with a way to counteract that trick, and then distribute the new and improved antivirus program to all of their customers. The time lag between those two events means there’s always going to be a space of time where somebody, somewhere, is vulnerable to infection.
So if having antivirus protection on your computer isn’t enough, what CAN you do to protect your computer? I’m glad you asked! The first thing to do is be careful of what you open in an email. Did your friend just send you a message that merely consists of the subject line “Hey, check this out!” and then a single link in the email? Probably not a good idea to click on that. Did they do the same thing, only with an attachment to the email? Again, not a good idea to open that attachment. One of the biggest vectors of attacks right now is getting people with an out-of-date version (read: vulnerable) version of Adobe Reader to open a PDF attachment.
Second, be care of where you are browsing on the internet. There’s a lot of infected websites out there, but the latest nasty trick is for a hacker to not even bother to infect the website itself, but rather one of the Flash ads that play on the side of the website. You don’t even have to click on the ad to get infected.
So how do you protect yourself from these kinds of attacks? I’m glad you asked, because that brings me to my third point. Well, point number 3 and 3.5 actually. One of the best ways to protect yourself is to keep all your various pieces of software updated. Enable Automatic Updates for Windows, make sure Java is updated, make sure your web browser (whichever type you use) is updated, and most assuredly make sure that your Flash player is updated, because Flash is the number one vector for infections currently. Ensuring that you have the latest updates for everything will drastically reduce your risk of infection.
Finally we come to the most important way to prevent yourself from getting a virus infection: Don’t use Internet Explorer! Internet Explorer is a highly insecure web browser that has direct access to the rest of your system. Anything that manages to compromise Internet Explorer has virtually unrestricted access to the rest of your system. Instead of IE, use a web browser like Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox. The latest versions of both of these browsers run in “sandbox” mode, which means that it is much, much harder for something to attack the rest of your computer through your web browser. As an added bonus, both of these browsers are much faster than Internet Explorer!
These steps obviously aren’t going to keep you completely and totally secure, nothing really will. However, it is my hope that this blog entry has at least provided you with a good place to start in order to be a bit more secure online.