From Brain to Backdoor

They are invisible to the naked eye. They move around the world, spread by innocent users of the Internet, destroying all that gets in their way. They are computer viruses, and the damage they cause has already cost companies billions of dollars. Our resident IT expert, Deji Akala, has a few tips for those who want to protect themselves.

The first person ever to be charged and convicted of writing a computer virus program in the US was David Smith, 34, from New Jersey. The police arrested him in April 1999, for creating and disseminating the infamous Melissa virus, which caused an estimated 80 million dollars in damages. The judge sentenced him to 20 months in prison. Smith was lucky - he received a comparatively light sentence because he helped the police with their inquiries, and pleaded guilty.

The first to be convicted of such a crime in the UK was Christopher Pile, also known as the "Black Baron", who pleaded guilty to 11 violations of the British Computer Misuses Act, in 1995. His viruses announced their presence by flashing up a sign on the screen that said, "Make me breakfast, I will be back later - but some of your data won't." He received 18 months in jail.

Viruses are the handiwork of young people, some in their teens, acting alone or as members of international virus-creating groups co-operating via the Internet. It is not clear what exactly motivates them. However, thirst for fame, something to brag about (I-am-the-one-who-broke-into-the-Microsoft-fortress mentality), job search (my code has been "successfully installed" by millions worldwide, so hire me), satisfaction from seeing your neighbour grimace in pain (the kind that drives young people into graffiti painting), and vandalism of public property, anti-establishment culture and the like may contribute to this phenomenon.

The I Love You virus originated in the Philippines, but its effects reverberated around the globe. Large businesses have lost millions to the virus plague. In the UK, research has shown that 70% of all small and medium enterprises have received at least one virus, with each losing an average L843, and 7.2 hours in computer time.

We should expect a continuous upsurge in the emergence of viruses. So far, more than 60,000 different viruses have been identified, and 400 new ones are released onto the net every month.

A virus is a piece of malicious code, written to have undesirable effects on another person's computer. It is just like any other piece of software, created by someone who knows about programming. Before any harmful code can be described as a "virus" it must satisfy the following conditions:

transportation - Viruses do not just appear out of nowhere. They are carried in several mediums, such as floppy disks, CDs, files, e-mail attachments, etc. activation - An infected file is harmless until it is activated. In most cases, the action is taken by the computer user. For example, a click on a file, opening an e-mail attachment, opening the infected document, etc. There are the so-called "time bomb" viruses that get executed at a particular time: the Michelangelo virus gets executed on March 18th, Michelangelo's birthday, for example. replication - Once the code is activated, it must be able to copy or reproduce itself in as many files as possible on the infected machine. Other things may happen, such as: loss of data, e-mailing all people found in the address book, etc.

How did it all start? The term "computer virus" was first used by Fred Cohen, in 1983. Viruses target different computer systems. The first were developed in the early 1980s and targeted Apple II machines. In 1986, the Amjad brothers of Lahore, Pakistan, most likely created the first virus targeting the IBM PC systems.

In those early days of computing, the installation medium was the floppy disk. Upon inserting the disk into its drive, the machine "boots", and the following things happen: The code is copied from the disk to the machine's boot sector. These sectors are not listed in the directory. When DOS goes through its routine, it will find an unrecognized "hole" and overwrite the virus code.

Experts in computer virology categorise viruses according to their behaviour, the affected operating system, and type of computer programming used to create them.

Program viruses -
Program viruses infect files by placing their programming instructions inside the original program. When the program runs, the virus code is also started. Some viruses are able to act as boot sector and program viruses. Trojan horses -
A program that hides its true nature is called a Trojan horse. The Greek hero, Ulysses, snuck soldiers into the ancient city of Troy in a hollow wooden horse. That'ßs the modus operandi of Trojan horse viruses. They are often attached to e-mail messages, or included with harmless programs to trick unsuspecting users into installing these viruses. Hackers also use Trojan horses to gain access to computer, or network systems, and install secret monitoring software. Macro viruses -
Macros are often short lines of code recorded or written by users of programs such as Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access to automate certain tasks. When a user opens an infected document, the instructions in the malicious code are carried out. Internet worms -
The Internet itself is a victim of viruses designed to attack this global network of computers, as it is now much easier to gain access to millions of PCs around the world. Such viruses, or worms, exploit e-mail programs and network software to multiply themselves.

The anti-virus sector of the IT business is growing. Companies have lost billions of dollars to virus or virus-related attacks, and computer security experts are cashing in on the fear of digital hostile action and other security breaches. The most popular software brands are:

Norton AntiVirus Sophos McAfee Kaspersky Antivirus EZ Antivirus

You may download the shareware versions of these applications and use them for roughly 30 days. When you install the software, it scans your machine for already infected files. You may configure these programs to automatically check your e-mail and delete any virus-carrying attachments before downloading your messages.

It is as simple as ABC:

Anti-virus software is indispensable. Check the producer'ßs website for regular updates and virus definition lists.

Back-up important files at regular intervals. CD recorders are affordable and recording on CDs is as easy as copying a file with your Windows Internet Explorer.

Consider all e-mail messages with attachments as dangerous until proven otherwise. Even if the address is your best friend's, the e-mail might have been sent on their behalf by virus code.

Nowhere is better than home! The Internet has unrivalled information on this subject.

The problem of viruses is here to stay. Until the counter-culture of writing and distributing malicious code becomes less fashionable in programming circles, all we can do is safeguard our machines.