Avoiding the dreaded viruses

It was 5 a.m., and as I sat in my dorm room, my palms were sweating and my heart was pounding as I gulped down my ninth Mountain Dew of the morning, but I was finally done.

I had just capped off a six-hour, last-minute, late-night essay exam.

As I laid in bed, trying to sleep, I was disturbed by a loud beeping coming from my laptop, signaling that it was about to shut down. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had acquired what would be known as the “Sasser” virus.

Not only had I not printed a copy of my essay, I also forgot to save it. When I tried to bring my PC back up, it wouldn’t stay running for more than 60 seconds and my essay was nowhere to be found. Had I taken a few minutes to get virus protection, I could have avoided this problem entirely.

I’m certainly not the first to have had problems like this. I hear people talking every day about how their computers were also adversely affected by viruses.

In fact, Chip Eckardt, manager of Desktop Support for Learning and Technology Services, said UW-Eau Claire fought off more than 1 million viruses last year.

“It might be as many as 4 million,” Eckardt said. “We don’t track these numbers because they’re too high.”

While viruses can be intentionally destructive – destroying data, for example – some viruses are benign or merely annoying.

“We don’t see all that many actual viruses (on student computers brought into the Help Desk),” said Charles Probst, one of three Help Desk coordinators when asked about the LTS Help Desk’s free computer cleaning program. “However, there is consistently a lot of spyware and malware on the machines.”

A computer virus is software designed to infiltrate or damage a computer system without the owner’s informed consent. Though the term “virus” is commonly used in everyday language, more often what people are actually referring to, and what I have defined above, is actually called “malware.”

A virus shares the same basic definition as malware, but a true virus must replicate itself and also execute itself.

Students living in residence halls need to be particularly cautious of viruses because they are on the same Local Area Network.

This makes the spreading of viruses, spyware and malware especially easy as each machine is essentially plugged directly into the next.

The Help Desk offers free anti-virus software for all students, faculty and staff. However, if any individual that has installed the software becomes unaffiliated with the university – a student that graduates, or a faculty member that retires, etc. – the Symantec Licensing Agreement stipulates that the software be removed.

However, “There are plenty of free virus protection options available,” Probst said.

I researched some options available online and found Free AVG at free.grisoft.com/doc/1 to be a top choice for users not wanting to pay for virus protection.

The Help Desk also offers links to tools to help keep your computer free of spyware, found at www.uwec.edu/helpdesk. Spyware is a broad category of software designed to intercept or take partial control of a computer’s operation without the informed consent of that machine’s owner or legitimate user.

When I asked Probst what a typical user could do to try to prevent from unknowingly obtaining malicious software on their computer he said, chuckling, “Don’t connect to the Internet.”

The comment was said in jest, but it holds a lot of truth. If users don’t have some form of real-time virus scanning software (Symantec Corporate has this feature) and aren’t prepared to do manual scans for spyware and malware every few weeks, they really shouldn’t connect to the Internet; it’s just too dangerous.

“If a computer is plugged into the Internet with no protection at all, it will most likely become infected – without a user even browsing the Web in as few as 10 minutes,” said Anthony Keys, professor in the Information Systems department.

“The ‘human firewall’ (user knowledge) is the best protection we have against many security vulnerabilities,” Keys said. “Without it, no amount of money spent on gadgets to protect us will do much good.”