Computer viruses, worms, Trojan horses and the like all have one thing in common: they do something to your computer that you don't want them to do. Some are very innocent and benign, simply displaying a message on your screen and then going away. Others can be very destructive. They may delete chunks of important information off your hard drive, grow on their own to the point that your hard drive fills up, and even send email messages with your passwords, contact lists or other information to people far and near. Some viruses happen immediately, others lay in wait for a specific day or trigger to do their dirty work. Still others have the ability to 'mutate,' or change what they do and how they spread.
There are five primary ways that a virus will enter your computer:
- By connecting a computer with an unpatched operating system (predominately Windows) to the Internet;
- Through unrestricted, open file/folder sharing;
- From a file you downloaded from the Internet;
- From opening an infected email message or attachment; and
- Via a contaminated diskette, ZIP drive or other removable media.
Scary, isn't it? By simply connecting your computer to the Internet network, it is highly susceptible to virus infection.
How to Avoid Infection
The numbers of viruses that exist and that are created daily is staggering. One source estimates are that there are in excess of 1000 viruses running rampant throughout the Internet at any given point in time!
FPU's antivirus effort has three dimensions.
- Sound user practices,
- Client (local) computer antivirus software, and
- Server antivirus software.
1. Sound User Practices
There are a few good habits that everyone can practice which will significantly mitigate the possibility that a virus will affect our network.
- Never open a file or email attachment that you weren't expecting.
- Be wary of all spam and unsolicited email.
- Do not share folders from your computer without some level of password protection.
- Install all critical computer system updates, especially if your computer runs Microsoft Windows. Go to http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com/ for details.
- Configure your computer to automatically load future updates as they become available. See this Microsoft how-to update site for details.
- Install a 'good' antivirus program on your computer (see next item below).
A note about email:
- As a general rule, you should never open a file or email attachment that you weren't expecting--even if it's from someone you know.
This is where many people have gotten into trouble. We're warned against opening attachments from people we don't know, but many current viruses spread through email that looks like it's coming from from people we know! Always be wary of unsolicited email with strange or incomplete subject lines... and never open an attachment that you have not anticipated. Virus programmers go to great lengths to bait their victims with messages that seem to cry out, "Open me, OPEN ME!"
Through a combination of good OS patch management, antivirus software, and sound user-practices, our defenses to prevent virus infection are formidable. OS and antivirus updates may be configured to take place automatically; and it only takes a few minutes to contact a friend or colleague and verify that they did indeed send you a legitimate email attachment. Exercising good judgment in this regard could potentially save you and the university considerable resources and headache!
2. Client Computer Software
Preventing virus propagation on campus is so important that we now provide anti-virus software for all faculty/staff workstations, and we require all students to have anti-virus software with current virus definitions on their computers before connecting to our campus network. While no virus protection software can be 100% effective 100% of the time, there are many quality programs available which come pretty close. Here are some key features to an effective anti-virus program:
- Interval scanning: You can set a time interval for the program to thoroughly scan your system.
- Automatic scanning: Whenever you download a file from the Internet or copy files from removable media (floppy disks, etc.), the information is scanned for viruses.
- Automatic updates: This is essential. Many new viruses come out every week and a program's detection capability is only as good as its virus definition (data) files. Detection programs must have a description of the virus in their database, otherwise the virus goes undetected. Many anti-virus software manufacturers offer free periodic updates to their product's data files; some even do this automatically via the web. Make sure that once you have purchased and installed your anti-virus software you configure it to automatically update.
Two companies which provide excellent anti-virus software are Norton and McAfee. Both Norton AntiVirus and McAfee VirusScan can be purchased at most large computer, electronics or office supply retailers. They can also be purchased or downloaded from the manufacturers themselves.
You may also consider installing a personal firewall to provide added protection for your computer. Both Norton and McAfee provide this software in addition to the virus protection software referenced above. Microsoft Windows XP includes personal firewall software.
If you are running Microsoft Windows XP (recommended), here is how to configure your personal Internet firewall.
- Click on Start -> Settings -> Network Connections
- Right-click on the active Local Area Connection icon (or on the active Dial-up Adapter icon for some off campus persons). Select Properties.
- Click on the Advanced tab. Place a checkmark in the box next to Internet Connection Firewall (ICF). Click OK and close the window.
3. Server-based Antivirus Software
In addition to the two aspects of virus protection mentioned above, FPU's information services staff maintain anti-virus software on all of the central server computers and scan incoming email attachments for possible infection.
Through a combination of awareness and current antivirus software, you should do well in mitigating the risk of infection. HOWEVER, nothing is 100% effective when it comes to viruses. You should also practice good data habits: keep backup copies of your important files in safe and separate locations.
What to do if You've Already Been Infected
Any abnormal behavior of your computer system may be an indication of virus activity. In the extreme, your computer will no longer boot-up or will hang in the process. If you suspect that you have been hit by a virus, the following steps may help you recover and get back on track:
- Isolate your system (unplug it from the network, collect any and all removable media that you've recently used--it may too be infected).
- Assess whether or not you truly have a virus. If you have virus protection software, run it in diagnostic mode. Check to see if your anti-virus data files are current; if not, download the most current files on a clean floppy disk from a non-contaminated, networked computer. (Consult your anti-virus owner's manual).
- Contact the information services Helpdesk (ext. 3410) to see if any known viruses are circulating and alert the staff of your situation.
If infection is confirmed:
- Determine, if possible, where the virus may have come from; notify by phone the person or site who sent it to you.
- Eradicate the virus--you will need anti-virus software to do this (short of completely reformatting your hard drive). And don't forget removable media (floppies. etc.)! Viruses do a good job of 'hiding' in innocent looking floppy disks. Make sure these are checked and disinfected to prevent recurrence of the infection.
- Restore contaminated files from clean copy--again, let us remind you of the importance of backing up your data.
Additionally, a number of websites also offer helpful virus alerts and diagnostic/eradication steps. The first place to go is to the website of your anti-virus software manufacturer. Hopefully this page has convinced you of the importance of using an anti-virus solution if you don't already!
Here are a couple of additional resources you may find helpful:
- Symantec - anti-virus research center
- Vmyths - information about virus myths and hoaxes
- House Call - Trend Micro's free online virus scanner
Dispelling a Common Myth...
While it is good practice to wash your hands after using someone else's keyboard, there have been no verified instances where computer viruses have been passed to humans.