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While there is certainly much hype in the media these days regarding computer viruses and their potential impact on the American economy, the simple fact is that viruses and other forms of computer sabotage programs do pose a real threat. Recently, the Computer Security Institute, in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, conducted a survey of computer crime and security issues and found that of the companies surveyed, 273 separate organizations reported losses of $265,589,940 from computer crimes, including viruses. The publication eWeek reported in June that damages totaling more than $700 million occurred in less than one week from the “Love Bug” virus. It is clear from these statistics that the reality of computer viruses and their inherent ability to wreak havoc on computer systems large and small is a real problem facing nearly every segment of our economy. What are not clear from these statistics and the media stories that cover these attacks, is exactly what viruses are, how they are unleashed, when viruses are not necessarily viruses, and what can be done to protect against them. The term “viruses” is commonly used to refer to a number of different threats that are not technically viruses. A virus is a piece of software written to enter a computer and have an effect on the files stored on that system. Many viruses are benign, such as those that display a humorous message or picture on the screen. Other viruses, however, are destructive in nature, damaging or erasing critical files. A hallmark of a virus is that the program is self-replicating, spreading among the files on a single computer and then transmitted to other computers via the Internet or other means of data exchange. TROJAN HORSES A second threat to computer security commonly viewed as a virus is a type of program called a “Trojan horse.” A Trojan horse masquerades as a useful, interesting or entertaining program enticing the user to run the software. A Trojan horse program is most often found in an e-mail attachment or other type of transferred document. In most cases, it cannot be unleashed into your computer system unless you open the attachment. Once the user runs the program containing the Trojan horse, the program carries out its destructive purpose, often behind the scenes as the user is using the Trojan horse program for its purported purpose. Unlike viruses, Trojan horse programs are not self-replicating but instead must be passed from user to user. WORMS A third threat commonly thought of as a virus is a program called a “worm.” Worms, like viruses, are self-replicating programs. Worms, however, reside in a computer’s memory, as opposed to viruses, which reside on a computer’s storage devices. A worm replicates by use of computer networks, remaining unseen by using portions of a computer’s operating system that are intended to run in the background. As a worm spreads across a network it consumes resources, slowing and even crashing the network. DENIAL OF SERVICE A final type of computer threat is a “Denial of Service” (DoS) attack. A DoS attack is an attempt to overwhelm a computer (usually a server for a web site on the Internet) by use of automated programs that repeatedly send or request information from the computer under attack. A successful DoS attack will consume all or most of the targeted computer’s resources, resulting in a “Denial of Service” message being sent to users attempting to access the computer’s content. Earlier this year, DoS attacks were responsible for crashing Yahoo! Viruses, Trojan horses worms and DoS attacks are merely the broad categories within which most threats to the security of computers and networks can be grouped. Within each of these categories there are literally hundreds and even thousands of individual variants all presenting unique risks. By keeping informed about the reality of viruses and other threats to computer security, we will better be able to avoid the increasing hype and focus on the real threats. As with every significant threat, there are those who will attempt to capitalize upon the fear created by the threat for their own gain. We have all been inundated with e-mails warning of the latest virus, many of which are hoaxes. Some software companies that sell anti-virus programs have even been accused of releasing alerts for viruses that pose no real danger in an effort to increase the sales of their products. For example, Kaspersky Lab Ltd., a 3-year-old anti-virus software company based in Moscow, has for the past several months issued dozens of virus warnings, averaging one alert every 10 days, including a three-warning blitz over four days in late June. While it has been noted that the potential harm caused by viruses is real, the same cannot be said about all of the hype. A recent article noted, “Of the last 10 virus warnings Kaspersky has issued, none is on anti-virus company Sophos plc.’s list of the 10 most reported viruses. And virus strains don’t have to be propagating for Kaspersky to issue a warning — as long as they have the potential to spread. Its latest warning, for a Windows 2000 threat called W2K.stream, reads, “Kaspersky Lab has not registered any infections resulting from this virus; however, its working capacity and ability for existence �in-the-wild’ are unchallenged.’ “ It is evident that there is as much, if not more, hype regarding viruses as there is real danger. To differentiate between the real threats and the hype, it is important to have a basic understanding of computer viruses. Only then can you adequately address the threat to your company or firm’s computer system and the appropriate measures you should take to ensure that your system is secure.

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