3 Steps to Computer Virus Protection

Submitted by Paul Currion on February 25, 2004 - 1:00am.

In the past few weeks, another computer virus has spread around the world, affecting everybody from individual users to multinational corporations. The 'MyDoom' virus demonstrated that a lot of people and organisations are still not taking the basic steps necessary to protect their computers against viruses.

If your computer is infected by a virus or other type of computer attack, you could lose your work - and you'll definitely lose a lot of time dealing with the attack! In the worst case, a computer virus could destroy all the records that your organisation holds on computer, and destroy the computers too!

This article is an introduction to the basic measures necessary to keep your office free from viruses. Please share it with colleagues - because if one person doesn't protect their computer, that computer could infect all the others. Computer security is the responsibility of everybody working in an organisation - everybody in your organisation who works with computers should understand their responsibilities in keeping the office free from viruses.

However, as with any security issue, your organisation should provide the security framework for you to work in. For computer security, this means that your organisation should immediately invest in adequate antivirus software, and possibly a firewall as well. If they haven't done this yet, you should request it immediately.

Step 1: Understand the problem

What is a computer virus, and why is a virus infection such a big problem? The first thing to understand is that viruses are not naturally occurring - they are deliberately created by a small minority of computer programmers.

A virus is a program that "infects" files in a computer. When one of those files is opened, the virus will start working on your computer, often with destructive consequences. Some viruses are relatively harmless, and will only delete some files from your hard drive. However some viruses are very dangerous, and can do permanent damage to your computer.

In addition, a virus will replicate itself, which enables it to infect other computers. Once a virus starts to spread, it can very quickly infect a large number of computers - creating a big problem all around the world.

Step 2: Be aware!

So how do viruses spread from one computer to another? The majority of viruses - particularly those that have been in the news in the last few years - are spread through e-mail attachments. If you're like me, your friends will often e-mail you attachments that contain funny stories, pictures or programs that they want you to see.

Most viruses are disguised to appear harmless attachments from your friends or colleagues. If you think an e-mail is from somebody you know, you are more likely to open an attachment to that e-mail - and so to activate the virus. Many viruses 'steal' e-mail addresses from your Outlook address book, and then send themselves to all those addresses - so you may be sending out a virus without even knowing it.

The most simple and basic precaution that you can take is not to open any attachment that you are uncertain about. Is the e-mail from somebody you know and trust? Is there a message in the e-mail explaining what the attachment is? Unfortunately you must learn to be suspicious of e-mails, even if they appear to have come from a friend or colleague. If you have any doubt, simply e-mail your friend or colleague and ask if they have sent you such an e-mail - if they say 'no', you can be sure it's a virus and delete it immediately!

What if you don't have an internet connection and don't use e-mail? A virus could still infect your computer. If somebody wants to share a file with you, they might give you a CD or floppy disk with a Word document or similar file, which you can copy onto your machine. However if that file was originally copied from an infected computer, you might just have accidentally infected your own computer. This is where Step 3 becomes important�

Step 3: Use an Antivirus Program

There are a number of commercial anti-virus packages available on the market. These programs act as a defence against viruses - when they first try to infect your computer AND afterwards if one gets into your system. Virus protection programs will identify which virus is present, try to clean or quarantine the infected files and prevent the virus from doing any more damage.

The market is dominated by two products - Norton Antivirus (starts from $69.95, from Symantec, www.symantec.com) and McAfee VirusScan (starts from $49.99, from McAfee, www.mcafee.com). However there are a number of other excellent programs, such as PC-cillin (starts from $49.95, from Trend Micro, www.trendmicro.com).

However many aid workers may not be able to afford or access these packages. If this is the case, don't despair - if you have an internet connection, you can download some free software packages which also offer protection against viruses. The most widely-used of these packages are AVG (from www.grisoft.com), Avast! Antivirus (from www.avast.com) and AntiVir Personal (www.free-av.de).

No matter which option you take, it's better to have some protection than none at all! However, even once you have antivirus software, you must make sure that you update it regularly. Every time a new virus appear, companies that produce this software update their definitions - and you will need to download these definitions to make sure that you are protected. Some programs do this automatically if you have an internet connection, or you can visit their websites,

Conclusion: The Most Important Protection

There are many more issues in computer security, but these basic precautions will help to stop you from falling victim to the next computer virus. However new types of virus are being created all the time, and you can never be 100% protected. In order to make sure that you don't lose your work, you MUST keep back-up copies of all of your important documents at all times.

In many ways this is the most important protection measure you can take - because viruses are not the main cause of people losing data. You are more likely to lose your data by something going wrong in the computer - or you might simply spill coffee on your computer, which has much the same effect!

IMPORTANT NOTE: This article does not endorse any of the anti-virus packages mentioned within. Please do your own research before purchasing or installing any new software!


Paul Currion is a consultant working in information management, particularly in Humanitarian Information Centres in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Liberia.


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