Protecting the public from the virus menace

Recent weeks have seen an absolute epidemic of viruses, causing some major disruptions to Internet services.

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By  Mark Sutton Published  August 31, 2003

Recent weeks have seen an absolute epidemic of viruses, causing some major disruptions to Internet services.

But while anti-virus software vendors are quick to update virus definitions, it seems that still there are hundreds of thousands of PCs out there that have no sort protection at all, and are merely helping to propagate these viruses.

The problem is rarely a corporate one. Controlling the spread of viruses is much simpler in an organisation with proper network controls, policies to regulate email and the technical ability to implement those controls and policies than for the smallest of businesses or the home user.

Home users are a particular problem, especially as the level of PC ownership rises. But the question is how to educate the end user into good anti-virus practice.

The problem was brought home to me by a number of people recently. One friend thought she had a virus after forgetting to renew her AV protection.

She took her infected laptop to a service centre, where the service engineer took the drastic approach of formatting her hard drive. She lost a lot of irreplaceable files. Although she knew she should have AV software, it had slipped her mind to update it, and the damage was done.

Another friend reported that three members of her family had PC's that had become infected with viruses in the space of a couple of weeks.

While she herself had up to date AV and had a fairly good understanding of IT, she was afraid to go online, in case she also got infected. As for her family, they simply didn't know that their AV had expired, or had even bought a PC that had no AV software.

In each case, the person was sitting there with a now useless PC that had caused who knows much damage through passing on the virus to other people. And naturally, while they all felt a little sheepish at not having AV software, it was the PC manufacturers, the ISVs and the PC retailers that they blamed.

The trouble is that, especially for anyone working in IT, it easy to overlook just how little some people really understand about using a PC. But there are uneducated users out there, and all the while virus writers deploy DDOS type attacks, the uneducated user is as dangerous as a novice driver in rush hour traffic.

A lot of novice PC users are learning the hard way about virus protection, although even then, with minimal IT literacy, it is still causing them to question the value of investing in a PC, and causing service disruption and worse to the rest of us.

So what should be done? The software vendors already do a very good job of automating anti-virus protection, it is still not enough-the market needs to make sure that users are getting AV onto their PCs and keeping it there, intact and up to date. AV software vendors might also consider trying a little harder to separate anti-virus awareness from marketing messages, to help boost the confidence and comfort level for end users.

The majority of new PCs now are sold with some AV software, but all too often it is only a 30, 60 or 90 day trial. When the time period expires, the user is then opened up to any new threat. With the level of pop-ups and spam that the average net user receives, it is not really surprising that so many of them seem to ignore the reminders to renew their AV licences. Selling a PC bundled with an AV licence for two or three years, or even a perpetual licence would at least ensure that every PC had some sort of protection.

Another option might be for ISPs to take on the task of scanning email and downloads. This might not be a simple option, especially in those markets with numerous ISPs, but it would at least help the service providers to help themselves, in terms of maintaining service. An alternative might be to insist that end users provide proof of up to date AV software before they could get an Internet account.

Whatever the solution, action is needed, to help keep the Internet working, and to ensure that millions of novice PC users don't decide they would be better off spending their money on something else.

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