Don't let virus safeguards make you complacent

If Rich Skrenta was like any other teenager in 1982, he had no idea that what he probably thought of as a harmless prank would be the first step in changing the entire computing world. His "prank" contributed to the creation of what has become a 40 billion dollar a year industry, one that is expected to almost double over the next few years.

Rich Skrenta is credited (or blamed, depending on your perspective) for writing and distributing the very first computer virus. Not with malicious intent, mind you, but rather to annoy his friends and amuse himself. And today, 25 years after Rich first put his practical joke into action, those of us in the technical arena have redefined the word virus to be something digital instead of biological.

We can all remember the days of chasing those elusive digital bugs that always seemed to replicate themselves over our networks faster than we could delete them. But it seems as though those days of scrambling to contain and eliminate them are behind us (pausing to knock on some wood), not because they've become less common, but because we, as an industry, have learned how to contain them, keeping them from rearing their ugly heads in the first place. If the reduction in virus alerts and news stories is any indication, we've been doing a better job keeping them at bay.

Actually, there are more of them, not fewer, as upwards of a million different variants have been documented. Not only are there more varieties, but both the threats and methods have become more stealthy and sophisticated. And now, instead of being designed to annoy or amuse, they're more often being designed to steal or destroy - steal identities or personal information and destroy lives or businesses.

But we have become much better at reducing and eliminating the threats, haven't we? Well, haven't we? Or are we becoming complacent, relying on our standard firewalls and antivirus programs? How often do we review our procedures and educate our end-users? We all have those standard preventative measures in place through various hardware and software firewalls, of course, and the antivirus software is scheduled to scan and update on a daily basis, but nary a mention in quite some time about the potential threat to our system. I must admit, it's been a while since I've given such things a good review, and it's been even longer since I've done anything to educate my end-users. I used to mention at least something about the virus threat in almost every monthly meeting, but it's been quite a while since the subject's been addressed. Perhaps, on the 25th anniversary of the first computer virus, it's time for such a review.

Here are some questions I'll be asking myself in the near future. How old is my hardware firewall? What about its firmware? Should Vista's Windows Defender take the place of all other spyware detection and prevention measures? Should I consider a second tier of protection? Norton Antivirus actually recommends disabling Vista's Windows Defender so it can ensure against conflicts between the two programs (at least the Corporate Edition version 10.2 does).

Should I "trust" Microsoft's product or Symantec's (or both)? Are my e-mail measures up to speed, including those on the client machines, on the mail server, and with my ISP? Will the inherent security features in Vista actually help to prevent infections and threats, or are they something future culprits will exploit, not unlike the hundreds of past Windows exploitations? Will my end-users be able to recognize future threats? And what will the next generation of virus bring - but more importantly, will I be ready for it?