A closer look at viruses

Dec. 1, 2003
In the past few columns of the Digital Dentist, we looked at methods of preserving data within our networks, specifically looking at data redundancy with mirrored hard drives and a backup protocol.

Lorne Lavine, DMD

In the past few columns of the Digital Dentist, we looked at methods of preserving data within our networks, specifically looking at data redundancy with mirrored hard drives and a backup protocol. As recent events with the "Blaster" and "So Big" virus have shown, our private office networks are increasingly at risk of attack from other networks and individuals, and protecting our computers from these attacks is crucial for every office. To ensure our networks are safe, it typically involves two steps: Making sure Windows is up to date, and, anti-virus protection.

Windows — For reasons I have never understood, our society has allowed software that is incomplete and buggy to be acceptable to us. When Windows 2000 was first released, there were 64,000 known bugs, yet the product was released to consumers with the understanding that patches would be made available to correct any shortcomings. Can you imagine any other industry where this would be OK? Would you drive a car that had 64 known problems, let alone 64,000? In any event, as Windows has been upgraded and patched, people are constantly finding new bugs and issues that need to be addressed. Some are quite minor and only apply to unique situations. Many, though, are what Microsoft calls "critical" updates, and these relate to security holes in the software that allow hackers to access our systems and cause damage.

In most cases, it is virtually impossible to keep up with these patches. However, newer versions of Windows have automated the process. In Windows XP, go to Start, then right-click My Computer, then left-click Properties, then select the Automatic Updates tab. Check the box that says, "Keep my Computer up to date." Below that, you have three choices that will determine if the download and installation are done automatically or whether you can dictate when they are installed. In most cases, it's safe to install these updates, but there have been some cases of updates causing system instability. I typically wait a few days after I know an update was released and do a search on Google (http://groups.google.com/) to see if people are having known issues. Once I know the update is safe, I'll go ahead and install it.

Malware — A term that is used to designate a group of programs that are designed to wreak havoc on your systems. The most common ones are viruses, worms, and Trojan horses. A virus, according to Webopedia, is a program or piece of code that is loaded onto your computer without your knowledge and runs against your wishes. Viruses can also replicate themselves. All computer viruses are manmade. A simple virus that can make a copy of itself over and over again is relatively easy to produce. Even such a simple virus is dangerous because it will quickly use all available memory and bring the system to a halt. An even more dangerous type of virus is one capable of transmitting itself across networks and bypassing security systems. Worms, on the other hand, are viruses that do not infect other programs. A worm still replicates itself to other computers, but will always arrive in the same program. A Trojan horse, often called a Trojan, is a program that appears to do something amusing or useful and actually does something else. It may destroy data or compromise your system security. However, a Trojan horse does not replicate itself or transmit itself to other computers.

No matter the definition, none of these programs are something you want on your computer! In our modern society, running a computer without virus protection is no different than leaving your front door unlocked or leaving the keys in the car while it's in the driveway — you're inviting disaster. Fortunately, the steps needed to get current, secure virus protection are easy and relatively inexpensive to implement. As a first step, get an online virus scanner. Online means that the program is able to access its home site while you are online so that you will be made aware when new updates are released. Ideally, you should set up the software to do this automatically for you, as there are times when new updates are released every couple of days. The three most popular virus scanners are Norton Anti-Virus (http://www.symantec.com/nav/nav_9xnt/), McAfee Virus Scan (http://us.mcafee.com/root/package .asp?pkgid=100&cid=8390), and Trend Micro PC-Cillin (http://www.trendmicro.com/en/home/us /personal.htm). All are easy to use, have constant updates, and are priced under $50.

Lorne Lavine, DMD, practiced periodontics and implant dentistry for more than 10 years. He is an A+ Certified Computer Repair Technician, as well as Network+ Certified. He is the president of Dental Technology Consultants, a company that assists dentists in all phases of technology integration in the dental practice. He can be contacted by email at [email protected] or by phone at (866) 204-3398. Visit his Web site at www.thedigitaldentist.com.

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