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Practice safe surfing

Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on September 22, 2000
(Issue 1838, Computer Security)

Morons with more time on their hands than sense in their heads have long sought petty pleasure through writing destructive little programs and hiding them in other files or e-mail messages. Variously described as viruses, worms or trojan horses (depending on how they cause their damage), these electronic infections have most often been spread by means of online connections. (In the very early days of personal computing, viruses were also spread by floppy diskette or even cassette as folks traded pirated software.)

In some ways, things are safer online today than during the bulletin board system era. If a BBS sysop wanted to embed a virus into a download file, s/he could also simply delete any messages on their board warning users about the file. Unless you visited another BBS with warnings about the infected file, you were unlikely to hear about it.

With the proliferation of e-mail and the Usenet newsgroups, any infected file on an ftp or Web site today is going to be identified and warnings posted across the 'Net almost immediately. The host ISP will be notified, as well as government agencies, and the file in question will be removed within days, if not hours.

But those of a malicious bent have discovered ways of manipulating e-mail on a scale unimaginable during the BBS age. By using the powerful scripting languages now included in many e-mail programs and word processors (if you click on an attached document), hackers can use your computer as a way of spreading their viruses – possibly doing damage to your system in the process.


Still free (if you want the entry-level version), Eudora offers Windows and Mac users a safer e-mail environment than Microsoft's more-powerful Outlook. Because the VBA scripting language of Microsoft Word can't access Eudora's address book the way it can Outlook's, a Word document infected with viruses like last year's destructive Melissa won't spread through Eudora. (Melissa was a particularly effective method of distribution since recipients would be more likely to open an attached document from someone they presumably knew.)

Eudora has limited HTML functionality, and embedded images and documents have to be opened externally to view. (Of course, using WordPerfect, ClarisWorks or StarOffice also offers additional protection from Melissa-style viruses.)

On the up side, Eudora is extremely stable, very fast, and quite easy to use.

While most folks think of Netscape for its browser, the Netscape suite also includes an e-mail program that offers the same protections as Eudora.

Unlike Eudora, Netscape's e-mail program offers complete HTML compatibility, and similar reliability.

And Netscape is available for nearly any computer platform – every flavor of Windows, plus Mac and Unix/Linux (more than three dozen variants!).


Yahoo's Viruses page
Yahoo has an entire guide dedicated to viruses – — identifying them, tracking them, and protecting yourself from them.

And from the companies link here, there are links to dozens of shareware and freeware virus detectors. (I use InnoculateIT from Computer Associates, a freeware program that has proven reliable on my Win98 box.) You'll also find links to the top commercial products, like McAfee and Symantec's Norton AntiVirus.

Whichever one you pick, you'll need to periodically update your program to ensure that you're protected against the latest viruses.