By Dennis Strain
© March 2015
You might ask yourself “do I need antivirus?” “I never had antivirus before and everything is ok,” you might say.
Well, let’s talk about it.
This is how Wikipedia defines a computer virus:
A computer virus is a malware program that, when executed, replicates by inserting copies of itself (possibly modified) into other computer programs, data files, or the boot sector of the hard drive; when this replication succeeds, the affected areas are then said to be “infected”. *1
That’s a pretty good definition, and well illustrates why we use the virus metaphor in this case.
The first known computer virus, again from Wikipedia, was the Creeper System in 1971 that infected a kind of computer called the DEC PDP 10. *2
Over the next twenty years a couple of dozen new viruses were created, infecting various other kinds of computer systems. Some of these viruses were a nuisance, some were a pain-in-the…well. Choose whatever noun you like to end that last sentence.
Then business began to pick up. Indeed, viruses and other online threats became the true malevolent businesses we grapple with today.
Webroot estimates there are now approximately 310 million viruses in existence today, 100 million of them created last year alone. That’s a pretty steep growth curve we face there. A couple dozen over twenty years, now 100 million last year alone.
Why do people do this? These days the answer is money. Sure, some bad guys are looking for thrills, some for status and others do this just because they can. But these days it’s mainly money. And big money at that. It’s difficult to nail it down, these guys don’t file their income taxes, but most estimates are now in the hundreds of billions of dollars per year range. Hundreds of billions! *3
Now the bad guys have a much bigger toolbox. We can generalize and name it all “malware.” This includes worms, trojans, botnets, backdoors, exploits and even more. I won’t define these terms here, but will include a brief glossary in the show notes.
As you can see, there are now more things to worry about in our computing environment than just viruses. “Antivirus” programs had to change as the threat landscape changed. Now we have to think more in the line of “threats” rather than mere viruses. We still call them antivirus programs, but any software vendor would be crushed and ejected from the market if their programs only dealt with viruses. Look again at the malware list stated above, then give it some thought.
So, now that we’ve moved on from thinking viruses to thinking threats, let’s ask the question again. Do you need antivirus software for your computer?
Is your computer – a Mac, say – susceptible to viruses? A few, far fewer than Windows computers. How about worms, trojans, botnets, backdoors and exploits? Oh, yeah; as are all – ALL – computers.
This is a good time for me to segue into a related topic. What is a computer? That box of indecipherable electronics I call my workstation, certainly. The servers sitting in the room next to my office, yes. We KNOW these are computers. How about your smart phone, your tablet? These are indeed computers that happen to provide very customized services. Should you protect them with antivirus software? Absolutely! Whatever else they are, they are computers connected to the Internet.
But wait, there’s more!
The year before last we replaced our furnace. It’s a thing of beauty and works very well. It’s also a specialized computer connected to the Internet through my home WiFi. The blessed thing emails me if it detects a problem with itself. It does not have antivirus software. Does it need to be protected? It’s a computer connected to the Internet; so, yes it does.
How about your new car, or that smart watch, or your pacemaker? Recently a very smart man demonstrated he could make an insulin pump administer a fatal dose from 300 feet away using Bluetooth. Bluetooth on medical devices…I wonder which genius thought that one up! Anyway, these are all useful devices that also happen to be computers connected to the Internet. Are they protected using antivirus? Absolutely! Are they currently protected? Almost certainly not. I’m sure they will be once people begin to understand this fact: whatever else these devices are, they are ALSO computers connected to the Internet.
Let’s move on to my second original comment: “I never had antivirus before and everything is ok.” Well…how do you know that’s true? Suppose some bad guy out in the world tricked you into installing a keylogger while you visited a website. How would you know about it? This guy is siphoning off everything you type looking for anything he or she can use to make a buck. Maybe your computer is now a member of a 500,000 strong botnet wreaking havoc all across north America. Again, how would you know? Do you keep a watchful eye on all the data that enters and leaves your home or business router? Do you examine the data packets on your network in an effort to detect suspicious traffic? Do you check it out whenever your computer is unaccountably slow from time to time?
The answer is most likely “no” if you are the sort that doesn’t install antivirus software. Or maybe you are an uber geek and have hardened your computer against such things. Good for you. Great! I’m talking about the rest of us. You already know what’s going on and none of what I say is new or a surprise to you.
I believe in what I call the Big Three: Antivirus, Backups, Updates. These are the basis of good computer management. If you skip any of these three, you leave yourself and others open to all sorts of threats our computers face today. This isn’t the end-all-be-all of computer management, but it IS a very good beginning.
Think about it.
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