Geek News: Virus hysteria has spread out of control

Remember the good old days of medicine?

When you got sick, you went to see the medicine man. He’d crack an egg on your head or make you spit into a bowl, and he’d soon have a diagnosis — evil spirits. Of course, it was always evil spirits, the only question was which variety.

Anyway, you d give him a pig or a chicken; he’d say an incantation or blow smoke in your face. You’d get better. Or die. Whatever the outcome, that was that. Of course, it wasn’t evil spirits — the medicine man didn’t know what was wrong, but had to come up with an answer — and you just wasted a damn good pig.

The same situation is developing in computing. Computers are complicated things, and when they go wrong the problem’s not always obvious. But there’s a good explanation for just about any problem you may have — it’s evil spirits.

Well, computer evil spirits: Your computer’s got a virus. The cure is fairly simple, too; you may be advised to format your hard drive.

The problem with this diagnosis is that it’s usually wrong, and you’ve just lost a damn good disk drive full of data. (You do keep backups, don t you? I thought not.) But it seems to be a common diagnosis. Many newcomers to computing, thoroughly confused by their machine’s behavior, jump on this diagnosis. With their limited knowledge, it’s an easy concept to understand.

Just as the average caveman could grasp the idea of evil spirits without too much effort, the computer-virus diagnosis is one that people with no understanding of computers can grasp very quickly. They can even make the diagnosis themselves.

More worrying, though, is that viruses provide an “out” for technical support people. You’ve got a confusing problem with the computer you just bought?

When you call the technical support line, listen for these cues: They start asking what software you ve loaded. Then they ask if you ve been connected to an on-line service. Have you downloaded files from the Internet? From AOL or CompuServe? Oh, looks like you may have a virus.

My sister, a few months ago, was a complete computing neophyte. Thanks to buying a computer lemon, she knows more than the average user now, but when she started she knew absolutely nothing and was an easy mark for the “you’ve got a virus, it’s not our problem” form of technical support. Such an easy mark she was caught twice, in fact.

The last time was when her computer had trouble reading her hard disk. Sometimes it would get into Windows, then crash after a few minutes. Other times it couldn’t start properly — she’d see messages saying it couldn’t read essential files on her computer.

The technical support “engineer” told her to type mem at the DOS prompt and press Enter. This command shows you how much computer memory is in use. “Even though you are not in Windows and not running a program in DOS,” the support idiot told her, “something’s using up memory. That means you ve got a virus.”

DOS geeks among you will be cringing by now. Not only is this diagnosis totally unsupported, but the clinical method is completely ludicrous. When my sister called me — after spending half a day finding and loading anti-virus software — I asked her if technical support had told her to try the mem/c command. This would show which programs were using memory. No.

Well, did he ask what was in her AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS files? This would show what programs were loaded when the computer was turned on, programs running unseen in the background. No.

So how did he know that her computer was infected? He didn’t. But it got her off the phone, didn’t it? In fact, her computer’s problem was a malfunctioning disk drive, something he could have figured out easily with a few sensible questions.

Let’s set the record straight about viruses. Few people have ever seen a computer virus in action. From all the hype, you d think the world was awash in them, that every second or third file contains them. It’s not, and they don t. I know hundreds of people who’ve worked with computers for years. Few have been hit by a virus.

Now, don t bother writing to say that you’ve been hit by a virus. (Are you sure? Is that a guess, or did an anti-virus program recognize it?) I know they exist, and can cause trouble. But they are nowhere near as common as the virus-utility companies want you to believe.

Another thing. Your computer can’t catch a virus from a simple text e-mail message. Not too long ago the Internet was frantic with rumors of a special virus, spread by e-mail. Simply download the message, and you re infected! (A friend used to joke about computer networks: “When you connect to another computer, you re connecting to every computer that computer’s ever connected to — so remember to use a rubber mouse pad!)

The e-mail scare was total nonsense, but spread easily in an environment of computing ignorance. Viruses only can be carried by files that “do things,” not by files that must be displayed or played. Program files can carry virus, as can files that contain macros (such as the fancier word processing files). ASCII text files, plain ASCII text messages, .GIF and .JPG pictures, cannot.

A few years ago, Barbara Bush warned us all that “Sex is Death,” a warning so hysterical and ridiculous that is served no purpose. In computing, virus hysteria is out of control. It’s used to explain the misunderstood and distracts us from real problems. Sure, use an anti-virus program. Then relax.

And if your computer gets sick, remember that it s probably not caused by a virus.

Peter Kent is a Colorado-based writer specializing in computers. He recently completed the PGP Companion for Windows (Ventana). Peter can be reached at pkent@lab-press.com.

Remember the good old days of medicine?

When you got sick, you went to see the medicine man. He’d crack an egg on your head or make you spit into a bowl, and he’d soon have a diagnosis — evil spirits. Of course, it was always evil spirits, the only question was which variety.

Anyway, you d give him a pig or a chicken; he’d say an incantation or blow smoke in your face. You’d get better. Or die. Whatever the outcome, that was that. Of course, it wasn’t evil spirits — the medicine man didn’t know what was wrong, but had to come up with an answer — and you just wasted a damn good pig.

The same situation is developing in computing. Computers are complicated things, and when they go wrong the problem’s not always obvious. But there’s a good explanation for just about any problem you may have — it’s evil spirits.

Well, computer evil spirits: Your computer’s got a virus. The cure is fairly simple, too; you may be advised to format your hard drive.

The problem with this diagnosis is that it’s usually wrong, and you’ve just lost a damn good disk drive full of data. (You do keep backups, don t you? I thought not.) But it seems to be a common diagnosis. Many newcomers to computing, thoroughly confused by their machine’s behavior, jump on this diagnosis. With their limited knowledge, it’s an easy concept to understand.

Just as the average caveman could grasp the idea of evil spirits without…