Ain't no protection from the Love Bug

If you haven't received at least three copies of the Love Bug, not to mention 20-odd warnings about it, press releases, pointers to fixes, both bogus and real, and the odd joke, then you're not really online at all.

By now you'll have learned just how widespread and vigorous the online community really is. If you haven't received at least three copies of the Love Bug, not to mention 20-odd warnings about it, press releases, pointers to fixes, both bogus and real, and the odd joke, then you're not really online at all.

You'll also have realised there are plenty of factors to take into account when it comes to virus protection. Firstly, you actually need a virus checker on your system and you need to keep it up to date as much as possible. Of course, that's not going to help when it comes to something like the Love Bug - virus protection software can only look for what it knows to be a virus. That doesn't mean it's worthless, far from it. If you think it's embarrassing having your system shutdown because someone launched a new viral attachment, think how bad it would be to lose your business to a problem you knew you could fix but didn't bother.

The flipside to the virus checker is, of course, the human element. I don't like to pick on Axon because they're hardly the only company to do this, but I received two copies of the virus from an Axon email account - one under the name I Love You and the other named Very Funny. Clearly the human element is something most virus checkers can't take into account, but come on - if you've received a devastating email virus, shut everything down until you're sure you've nailed it.

Businesses have a distinct advantage over the home user when it comes to virus protection - if you have IT support staff they can take the whole matter out of the hands of the individual user and make it a corporate policy instead. There is plenty of software available that lets IT staff tie down a user's PC to such an extent that it would take a very clever virus writer to get through the defences. My wife's IT staff use Mail Marshal - and I know this because when I send her amusing wee executable files, they get stuck in a holding pen and I get a terse little email telling me I have to come up with a business case before she can get it. I tried to sign her up on ICQ so we can chat in real-time, but making changes to her hardware profile is also not allowed. While it's kind of irritating, from a business point of view it makes perfect sense. I hope my IT staff aren't reading this, however, because I like tutuing with my PC. I did hear one muttering about not allowing users to receive email at all after this latest bout of infection.

Then there is the role of the ISPs to take into account. All the major players, Xtra, Clear and ihug, announced they were screening email for the virus. While this is a great service, it does raise some serious questions about privacy. Who decides what the ISPs can look for? What do they do if they do find a virus - will they track it back to the source? Will you be notified that the email has been blocked? What if it's something unrelated like commercially sensitive financial data or child pornography? Do they turn you in to the police? Is that evidence admissible in court?

Beyond this week's events there are greater ramifications for the online community - not least of which is the next generation of technology. Will we see a rash of viruses aimed at cellphone users once data is exchanged via 3G devices? What about online gaming machines, like PlayStation II or DreamCast? Once DSL and wireless connections become commonplace and the Internet is "always on", will we need to install home-based firewalls to protect our fridges, garage doors, air conditioners and TVs? Could be a whole new market in protecting the home area network (HAN) of the future.

Paul Brislen is a Computerworld journalist. Send email to Paul Brislen. Letters for publication should be sent to Computerworld letters.

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