You Can't be Too Wary about Malware

Columnist Penny Klein walks her parents -- and the rest of us -- through a security session.
I spent the weekend with my parents, who come from the generation of folks who used typewriters -- not word processors; sent letters -- not email; and used accounting books -- not excel. They lived in a world where you did not lock your house or your car at night. They felt safe.

Most of all, they trusted everyone.

I guess I knew this, but did not truly understand the extent of their vulnerability.

When my parents got their first computer, we had carefully installed the security features, provided them with Norton Anti-Virus, and made sure they had Spybot. My husband, Rich, carefully explained (trying not to scare them) that as long as they kept their security protections up-to-date, there shouldn't be any problems. Rich then proceeded to tell them about some of the dangers lurking out on the Internet.

First he explained about Spyware. Some sites, he told them, download spyware without the user having any knowledge about it. Strictly defined by Wikipedia, 'Spyware is a broad a category of malicious software intended to intercept or take partial control of a computer's operation without the user's informed consent. While the term, taken literally, suggests software that surreptitiously monitors the user, it has come to refer more broadly to software that subverts the computer's operation for the benefit of a third party.'

Since my parents' computer runs Microsoft Windows, they are a target. That's why Rich had loaded SpyBot Search and Destroy. He left instructions on how to periodically execute the software.

Then Rich explained viruses to my parents.

Again, according to Wikipedia, a virus in computer security is a self-replicating program that spreads by inserting copies of itself into other executable code or documents (for a complete definition: see below). Thus, a computer virus behaves in a way similar to a biological virus, which spreads by inserting itself into living cells. Extending the analogy, the insertion of the virus into a program is called an infection, and the infected file (or executable code that is not part of a file) is called a host.

Viruses are one of several types of malware or malicious software. In common parlance, the term virus is often extended to refer to computer worms and other sorts of malware. This can confuse computer users, since viruses in the narrow sense of the word are less common than they used to be -- compared to other forms of malware such as worms. This confusion can have serious consequences, because it may lead to a focus on preventing one genre of malware over another, potentially leaving computers vulnerable to future damage.

However, a basic rule is that computer viruses cannot directly damage hardware, only software.

Because of this, Rich had loaded Norton anti-Virus on their computer, and left instructions on how to periodically update the virus signatures.

The difference between viruses and spyware is that that spyware usually does not self-replicate. We explained to Dad that the main purpose of spyware was to exploit the computer for commercial gain. This exploitation comes in the form of unsolicited pop-up advertisements, theft of personal information and monitoring the user's Web-browsing activities. The viruses could directly affect his software, slowing down his computer, or in a worse case scenario, causing his computer to crash.

Dad said he understood all the security implications, and how he can avoid them. He promised he would follow the directions. We left satisfied that my parents -- and their computer -- would be safe.

This brings us back to our latest visit.

My Dad was telling us his computer was running slowly, so we checked it out. As suspected, he only updated the Norton Anti-Virus software when he got the pop-up reminder -- every 30 days or so. Additionally, he had not run Spybot Search and Destroy. When we ran Spybot for him, it found a lot of spyware on his computer. Oh yes... I also found out he clicked all the 'remember passwords' boxes.

His comeback to my concerns was that he only went to 'good sites'. Therefore it should be fine. After all, he said, he didn't browse porn, or any of those other shady sites.

That is when I realized some people from that earlier generation, although they now lock their houses and cars, still have a high trust factor built in. That makes them very vulnerable, especially since many of them are fairly new to using computers. And, unfortunately, many people will take advantage of that.

My solution?

I guess I will have to come up with a better explanation of the issues so I can make them thoroughly understand the dangers out there. But then I run the risk of scaring them so they won't use the Internet at all. Maybe I just remember that they kept me safe as a child, and now it is my turn to ensure their safety to the best of my ability and knowledge of the Internet.

I also will remind my friends to do the same for their families.

More information on adware and spyware can be found in Intranet Journal's Spyware Guide.

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