Don't worry yourself sick if you run into a cyber virus

February 24, 2005|By Mike Himowitz

WHEN I SAT down at my PC to begin this column, the first thing I noticed was a new message from Microsoft's anti-spyware program. While I was gone, it had spent 19 minutes scanning 1,899 memory processes, 48,627 files on my hard drive and 8,442 keys in my Windows registry.

Spyware threats detected: zero.

Then, as usual, I checked the log of my Norton Antivirus program. It hadn't found anything worthy of suspicion. Next came ZoneAlarm, the firewall that protects my computer from real-time Internet burglars. Nothing more than the usual snoopers.

For me this has become a routine, just another sign that we live in an age of digital anxiety - which might be entirely justified and might not.

The news certainly looks bad enough. Late last week, security researchers announced that the first mass-distributed virus had turned up in U.S. cell phones. Known as Cabir, it spreads through the short-range, Bluetooth wireless system that the industry devised as an easy way to connect computers, printers, cell phones and other gadgets. It's easy, all right.

This virus doesn't do much damage. Mainly it runs down cell phone batteries in a ceaseless search for other Bluetooth-enabled cell phones. But the next one might not be so benign. And we know for sure that virus writers have an additional 1.5 billion targets - that's how many people carry cell phones worldwide.

A few days after the Bluetooth scare, the FBI warned that hackers were distributing a virus masquerading as e-mail from the bureau itself. Bearing an fbi.gov address, the message warns recipients that they have visited an illegal Web site and orders them to open an attachment containing a list of questions. When they comply, they get something worse than the third degree from an electronic G-man - they get a virus.

That, by the way, was the day after the hacked contents of Paris Hilton's mobile phone address book were posted on the Web. It was great grist for the gossip column snicker mill but not much fun for the folks in her address book - famous and not so - who were bombarded with prank phone calls and e-mail.

It's certainly not much fun for other customers of T-Mobile, the cell phone provider that was paying Hilton to promote its products. It turned out, coincidentally, that someone had hacked T-Mobile's servers and made off with the personal information from at least 400 accounts.

OK, I get paid to pay attention to this kind of thing. Is the online world really that dangerous? Or has my addiction to tech headlines made me paranoid?

Some people would undoubtedly vote for the loony bin. One of them is Larry Seltzer, author of PC Magazine's online Security Watch column. In an article titled "Five Years after the End of the World" that appeared in the latest print version of the magazine, he notes that Jan. 1 marked the fifth anniversary of Y2K, the disaster that never was.

For those who missed this milestone (including yours truly) or have forgotten it, Y2K is an abbreviation for Jan. 1, 2000, the day the world's computer systems were supposed to crash. That's because a generation of lazy programmers had used only two digits to record the year in all the arithmetic that calculated dates. When the clock ticked over to 2000, all those computers would think it was 1900 and millions of them would go bananas. Banks would fail, the power would go out, planes would crash.

Such was the prediction from the doomsayers, and I admit I joined the chorus - in more measured tones, of course.

The Y2K disasters never happened, at least not on any measurable scale. But Seltzer argues that today's headlines about viruses, worms, spyware, Trojan horses, phishing scams, identity thefts and other evil artifacts of the online age promote much the same hysteria as publicity over Y2K.

He and others say they are worried that too many people will buy into this gloom and doom and abandon or seriously curtail online activities, which, for the most part, have improved all our lives.

His take on Y2K history: "Don't believe everything the experts tell you, and be especially skeptical of worst-case predictions for technology."

That's good advice, but as judges say, I concur in part and dissent in part. One reason Y2K wasn't a disaster is that programmers took the warnings seriously, if a bit belatedly, and worked furiously to fix their systems before the new millennium.

If our information technology folks here at The Sun hadn't spent man-years working on Y2K, we would have stopped publishing. Ask any technology officer from any business, government or educational institution who was around at the time. They'll tell you the same thing.

On the other hand, before you buy into hysteria over any batch of bad news, take a deep breath and look into the details.

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