Curbing Computer Viruses: A Lesson from Sex Ed
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Our commentator, Aharon Rabinowitz, has some advice for the next time you hear about a really bad computer virus. He says, do your friends a favor - don't tell them about it.
Mr. AHARON RABINOWITZ (Commentator): These days, there are computer viruses floating around everywhere. And if you cruise the Web, there's almost no way to avoid them. But there are ways to protect yourself. To quote my high school sex ed teacher, every time you e-mail someone, you're e-mailing with every person they've ever e-mailed with before you. So always use a virus scanner. Okay, that's not an exact quote, but you get the point.
Virus scanners, if kept updated, are extremely effective in keeping your computer safe from harm. Of course, every once in a while, some genius kid in Slovakia gets dumped by his girlfriend, so he makes a particularly nasty virus that will wipe out your hard drive on the anniversary of their breakup. And it may take a day or two for the virus software companies to work that one out. But, sooner or later, usually within 48 hours, they do take care of it.
The problem is that the one thing virus scanners can't protect you from is human nature. People have a tendency to act before they think. In addition to the real viruses that go around via e-mail, occasionally, the threat of a fake one goes around, too, and can cause just as much panic and havoc as the real thing.
Here's the situation. You get an e-mail from your friend telling you about a really heinous computer virus going around that'll wipe out your drive in the next few days. If you get an e-mail with a specific word in the title - for example, invitation, then just shut down your computer immediately and seek professional help.
On the other hand, says the e-mail, if you have not gotten the virus yet, you should send this information to all the people in your contact list to warn them about this terrible threat. It's better for your friends to get the e-mail a hundred times, than it is for them to get the actual virus.
The problem is that the virus isn't real; it doesn't exist. And, of course, once some jerk sees the e-mail, he starts spamming every e-mail address he can find with the subject invitation. The next thing you know, e-mail boxes are clogged up with the mucus of fictitious threats, and then the fever of fear takes over making you pass it on to everyone you know. That's right, my friends, now the virus isn't some harmful computer code, the virus is you.
But why would we pass on this information? Shouldn't we know better? Shouldn't we cover our mouths before sneezing this nonsense all over the Web? Well, part of human nature is that we crave information and like to share as well. And when we hear something new and interesting, if it comes from a reliable source, we want to trust it.
So your friend got this information from their friend and their friend got it from another friend, and so on and so on. But sometimes, that information comes from a source that we don't know and often we still trust it anyway. I mean, somewhere along the lines, someone had to hear about the virus from a source they didn't know, right?
The big question is why would we trust that source? I think another part of human nature is to respect authority. If someone sounds like they know what they're talking about, we tend to trust them. Not always, but often. You combine that tendency to trust with technology, something that most people don't understand and even fear, and you're sitting on a big old can of I should have known better.
One thing the tabloids have taught us is that you can't always trust what's written on paper. Heck, with enough scandals in the real newspapers, a lot of us don't even trust the legitimate stuff these days.
But what people tend to forget is that while it costs money to distribute false information on paper, it costs virtually nothing to do it over the Internet. If someone wants to lie or cause trouble, they can do it on a much larger scale without having to pay a cent. And they can use you to do it.
So the next time you receive an e-mail about some threat going around, or for that matter anything that seems even a little suspicious, don't panic and don't forward it on to your friends. Be your own computer penicillin, practice safe Internet. Do some research. If you know what to look for, you can find some valuable information while cruising the Web. But remember, always wear a virus scanner while you do it.
SIEGEL: Aharon Rabinowitz is the creator of the DVD "Internet Killed the Video Star: A Guide to Creating Video for the Web."
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