A few months ago, a co-worker came running into my office in a panic, her arms flailing wildly. "Oh my ga-wd, you just have to come see this!" I leapt up and quickly followed to see what was causing this incredible uproar. When we arrived at her computer, there was a small, pop-up window bearing her name and the comment, "...is a big jerk!"
I couldn't help but smile. I'd heard about that particular virus, named "W97M.Class", but it was the first time that I'd actually seen it in action. Thankfully, it was one of the more innocuous strains. The virus only hurls occasional insults, and attaches itself to the odd Microsoft Word file.
There are countless other viruses out in the wild, though, that are much more harmful - especially to writers. In a world where the heart and soul of the writer's story are committed to the cold, hard drive of their computer, a virus can be allowed no quarter. Files can be corrupted or lost altogether, often without the writer's knowledge or intervention. If you're struggling to meet a deadline that's approaching much too quickly, just imagine being set back to square one because a virus destroyed your files.
Believe me, after printing a book, setting up a website, and putting together a marketing plan, the last thing that you want to have happen if for a computer virus to destroy your data, lock up your computer, or otherwise interfere with your plans. It is hard to pin down just what these electronic beasties actually are, and in fact, there is no clear-cut definition. In all cases, though, a computer virus is a block of executable computer code. It might be a stand-alone program, or could ride along in another file to be executed when that file is opened. Many viruses attempt to attach themselves to other files to reproduce. For a computer virus to achieve its ultimate goal, though, it has to make its presence known - that is what drives the virus authors to continue to create them. Some computer viruses are incredibly destructive: secretly adding malicious verbiage to documents, corrupting or deleting entire files, even destroying the boot records of disks so that a computer can no longer be started.
Several general categories of computer virus exist, and they all vary greatly with their particular programming.
A Polymorphic Virus is one that multiplies with each instance being slightly different, to make it more difficult for virus scanners to detect.
Trojan Horse Viruses appear to be doing one thing, while in reality are performing a more destructive task without the computer user's knowledge. A recent Trojan Horse displayed a small, graphic fireworks display in a pop-up window, while it was really searching the computer user's email directory and preparing to send copies of itself out to other unsuspecting users.
A Stealth Virus is one that, while performing whatever purpose it was written for, also has the ability to hide from virus scanners. For example, a stealth boot virus intercepts attempts to view the disk sector where it resides, and instead presents a copy of the disk sector as it looked prior to infection.
A Worm Virus multiplies, but does not need to attach to particular files to propagate itself. When a Worm Virus has been executed, it performs the functions programmed by its designer, but also seeks to infect other systems by copying its code to them.
You may also hear about Zoo Viruses, which are those that have been written for the sole purpose of studying the properties and prevention of viruses. Occasionally one of these Zoo Viruses will escape into the wild and infect user machines, but it is rare.
To make matters worse, there are many hoaxes that people are warned about daily, usually through emails. One example of this is the "Happy Times" virus, that gained notoriety over the Internet as people spread the word "Quick - tell everyone that you know! If you receive an email with the subject Good Times, don't open it!" Quite honestly, sometimes it is hard to determine which ones are real, and which are only urban legends.
There is a simple answer to all of these: invest in a reputable virus-scanning program. Some of the more popular (and powerful) packages are made by Norton, McAffee, and Microsoft. Monthly updates are available over the web that allow users to download new virus signatures, so that the virus scanner is always ready to search for the latest identified problems.
In every single case, a computer user has to allow an infected file onto the computer, then somehow activate it. The file can arrive by downloading it from the Internet, receiving a file attached to an email, or by loading a file from disk or CD-ROM onto your computer. The most horrendous virus in the world can be on your hard drive, though, and unless that file is executed (or opened), it cannot hurt the computer.
After you purchase your Virus Scanner, immediately log onto the Internet and use its update function to make it current. In Norton Anti-Virus, for example, there is a "Live Update" button - once clicked, it will extract the update files from their website, automatically add the new virus signatures to the program on your computer, and even suggest actions that you should take. Finally, follow the instructions to configure your new virus scanner to examine all incoming files, as well as performing a weekly routine scan of your computer.
Not only will this allow you to have the peace of mind that your computer is free of viruses, but once your system has been cleaned of any infection, the virus scanner will continue to do its job. It will examine anything that is received via email, files that are downloaded over the Internet, and even the boot record of your computer's disk each time that you start your computer. Doing this is your best line of defense, and as writers use the Internet to interact more and more, is the electronic equivalent of safe sex.
Once you have this defense in place, if you miss your deadline with your publisher, you won't be able to blame a computer virus - you may very well relegated to the old excuse of "my dog ate my manuscript…" You will, however, feel secure in the knowledge that the story you've labored over for so long is safe, and will not fall prey to the myriad of computer viruses that running loose in the wilds of the computer world.
© 2005 Mitchel Whitington
About the Author
Mitchel Whitington is an author and speaker - visit Mitchel's website at http://www.bookconstructor.com.
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© 2002-2012, Mitchel Whitington. All rights reserved