Computer Viruses: You Are NOT Protected

Aug. 1, 2000
Charles L. Werner shows why computer viruses have become a serious concern for the emergency service community.

"New virus wipes hard drives, calls 911."

This was one of the headlines on CNN on April 3, 2000. In this story, the National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC) identified a new virus that can erase hard drives and take control of a user's modem in order to dial a 911 emergency line.

According to the NIPC, the virus had affected a "relatively limited" number of systems in the Houston area. Viruses have become a serious concern for the emergency service community and it's time to implement defenses to protect critical information.

May 2000 was considered one of the worst months in history regarding computer viruses. On May 4, the world was hit with the "I Love You" virus or bug. This virus attacked e-mail systems and caused major shutdowns, affecting millions of computer systems and resulting in losses exceeding $1 billion. It also used e-mail address books, instant messenger and chat programs as means of spreading the virus. The e-mail subject lines included "I Love You" or "joke." On the following day, two copycat viruses appeared and were even more damaging and more difficult to detect, as they were "polymorphic" (having the ability to change themselves).

Thousands In Existence

According to numerous sources, more than 17,000 computer virus strains have been identified and new ones are being developed every day. It has been estimated that 95% of all computer viruses are more mischievous than harmful. The remaining 5% cause real concern for emergency service information and data systems. Without proper protection and backup of information, a serious amount of information and time could be lost. In systems that are considered mission critical like computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), such a loss could result in not only a monetary loss but also result in a loss of vital time when seconds may make the difference between life and death.

Are you and your department using virus protection software on your computers or computer system? Approximately 40% of computer users are not. If you are using virus protection software, do you update it at least weekly? If not, you are not really protected and, like many others, you have fallen into the false sense of security.

With new viruses being created, updating virus files or DAT files is essential. (DAT files are data files that provide virus signature information for anti-virus software programs. They must be updated in order to have the latest virus information and cures.) Most virus protection software companies offer updated DAT files available for immediate download from the Internet and they are usually free.

If you have not installed some type of virus protection software, you may be unknowingly sending a virus in every document you author or every e-mail you send. More alarming, the next time you turn your computer on, it may not work or important information could be gone!

Here are a few clues that may indicate a virus is present:

  • Bogus or unusual messages appear for no reason.
  • A message appears and tells you that you are infected.
  • You receive an e-mail from another system that says your file was infected.
  • Your computer begins acting funny (doing things that you haven't instructed it to do).
  • Your computer slows down significantly.
  • Unusual music played at random times.
  • A disk or volume has been renamed.
  • Unknown programs or files have been created.
  • Some files become corrupted or suddenly don't work properly.

How do you protect yourself? First, it will be important to install updated anti-virus software and scan your entire system both on the storage medium and the computer memory. Once your computer is virus free, it is best to install a virus monitoring application that scans all files that are saved, opened, downloaded or installed. Then it will be necessary to be on a vigilant practice of updating these anti-virus DAT files and conduct scheduled scans. Most of these virus programs will provide you with the means of cleaning or deleting any files that have become infected.

Infections Via E-Mail

Many infected files find their way to your computer system by e-mailed attachments. If you don't know the sender or are in any way suspicious, DO NOT OPEN THE ATTACHMENT AND DELETE IT!

Until now, it would have been acceptable to open an attachment from someone you know. Today, that is no longer true. The "I Love You" virus and others that followed take the addresses from e-mail address books and send it to people listed. In this case, you would be receiving an infected attachment from someone you do know. The latest recommendation regarding attachments is that you do not open any attachment from anyone unless you are expecting it! One key thought for any e-mail: if you don't know from whom it's sent, DELETE IT.

C net provides these pointers to protect your data:

  • If it's important, you should have more than one copy (back it up).
  • If it's important, it shouldn't be easy for someone else to open, find or overwrite it.
  • If it's important, don't store it on only your hard drive.
  • Maintain updated anti-virus software.

No software can totally protect any computer system from every virus. Successful protection will depend on regularly updated anti-virus software, proper methods of dealing with attachments and backing up important information.

Charles L. Werner, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a battalion chief with the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. He is the Technology Chair for the State Fire Chiefs Association of Virginia, Communications/Technical Coordinator for the National Fire Academy Alumni Association and is a member of the Web Team.

About the Author

Charles Werner

CHARLES WERNER, who is a Firehouse contributing editor, is a 45-year veteran of public safety. He served with the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department for 37 years, serving the past 10 years as chief. Following retirement, Werner served for two years as senior adviser and acting deputy state coordinator for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. He has chaired: DHS SAFECOM Executive Committee; IAFC Technology Council; National Information Sharing Consortium; and DHS/White House Incident Management Information Sharing SubCommittee. Werner currently serves as the director of DroneResponders Public Safety Alliance, chair of the National Council on Public Safety UAS and chair of the Virginia Secure Commonwealth UAS Sub Panel.

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