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Computer Viruses and Genealogy
by Gary B. Hoffman
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How to Protect Yourself and Your Data
With genealogy becoming such a computer-based hobby, it's wise to take precautions when sharing files with family and fellow researchers. Computer expert Gary Hoffman shows you how to keep your computer safe.

If you've been bitten by the genealogy "bug" and now you've bought a computer to help you sort out all your research, you should be aware that computers, too, are susceptible to infection by computer "viruses." What is a computer virus, where does it come from, and how can you protect your computer from damage due to a virus? These and other questions are answered in this article.

What is a Computer Virus?

Computer viruses are uninvited programs that run on your computer usually surreptitiously, sometimes causing damage to your other computer files. Viruses are written by amateur programmers usually as pranks or experiments. Many viruses secretly copy themselves to files in your hard drive or diskettes and in that way propagate themselves as you share files with other computer users. Today, the most common viruses run inside Microsoft Word's macro language called WordBasic and attach themselves to Word documents. These macro viruses spread when someone sends an infected Word document to a friend via diskette, e-mail, or on a USENET news group.  

Whereas new biological viruses — such as flu and HIV — are the result of Darwinian evolution at the single cell level, computer viruses are programs created intentionally by people and then turned loose on computer users via the world's networks for their amusement value. Computer viruses do not arise spontaneously; they are made, not born.

Early viruses were prank programs written in machine language, DOS scripts, or BASIC language. Their damage was generally limited to the type of computer that could run their program and they could not jump from IBM-compatible to Macintosh to Unix computers. Today, with the effort to make data files cross-platform compatible, we now have cross-platform viruses that don't care what kind of computer they run on.

Mainstream programs such as Microsoft Word, Corel WordPerfect, and Lotus AmiPro have powerful macro languages built in that allow the scripting of repetitive tasks to ease word processing chores. The WordBasic environment of Word 6 and 7 — and the more powerful VisualBasic environment of Word 97 — plus the market saturation of these Microsoft products have led it to become the development environment of choice for virus programmers.

On the other hand, typical genealogy programs and even the GEDCOM file format are not good environments for viruses because they don't usually provide a means for a virus to run, replicate, or deliver its payload. Still, a virus could masquerade as an innocent genealogy file, effectively a "trojan horse" that invites you to download it into your computer where it can secretly do its damage.

The latest, greatest programming environment is Java, which is being touted as a "develop once, run anywhere" kind of programming language. The Java promoters claim that checks are in place to prevent viruses written in Java from harming anyone's computer. But the computer Nirvana that Java is supposed to bring will only result when its full power is unleashed and those checks are removed. That's also when virus developers will begin to exploit Java and we'll have a rash of Java viruses floating about, infecting every kind of computer.

What Can Viruses Do in Your Computer?

They can cause strange pictures or messages to appear, triggered by the occurrence of a date or a keyboard event. They can cause random words to appear in your documents. They can erase key files on your storage area or even wipe out your entire hard drive, which will prevent your computer from operating at all. A virus can cause you to lose time and money (and sanity) and even destroy irreplaceable data.

Virus Hoaxes

The fear of computer viruses has spawned another phenomenon, the virus hoax. A virus hoax is a false dire warning message about some virus or another. These warning messages run rampant through the e-mail system and insist that only you can save the world if you send the warning message to everyone you know and to every conceivable mailing list. New computer users are often taken in by these hoaxes because of their seemingly authentic technical wording. In a sense, a virus hoax is a type of virus that depends on computer users to propagate it further. These hoaxes never seem to die, even after they are widely debunked, because a new batch of users will discover them and send them along again. All the experts agree: never believe a message about a virus that is sent to you by a friend. And never, never forward such a message to your friends.

How Do You Know If Your Computer Has a Virus?

Not all computer glitches can be attributed to viruses. Sometimes freezes, crashes, or "general protection faults" are the result of normal operation, faulty hardware, programming errors, or insufficient memory. But some tell-tale events are almost always the result of a computer virus infestation. For example, if you can't save a Microsoft Word document in any other format than a template, you probably have one of the nearly 1,400 Word macro viruses. Another Word macro virus will insert the word "wazzu" randomly throughout your Word document. To see which macros are active in your document, select Macros from Word's Tools menu. If you don't recognize the names of the macros in that window, you probably got them from a virus.

Likewise, if you find your hard drive operating constantly when you haven't asked it to open a file, you may have a virus. Some viruses cause program files to grow in size on your hard drive; look out for larger than normal files. Also, watch out for strange messages on the computer screen when you boot DOS or Windows. One virus will even try to "eat" the period typed into a DOS command line, as when you are trying to run a program like program.exe. Most viruses are designed to avoid detection and try not to call attention to themselves. Virus checking programs watch for typical virus behavior and alert you if they detect virus-like activity, giving you a chance to repair the offending file or delete it.

How to Protect Your Computer from Viruses

In my work in a university department, I encounter computer viruses daily that are borne by diskettes or e-mails sent from all around the world, or downloaded from FTP or Web sites. I am constantly scanning hard drives on servers and workstations and equipping my users with tools to prevent infections. It has become a large part of my job. A part, I might add, that I don't particularly enjoy. While you might not have the same exposure to computer viruses that I have, you should still take basic precautions to prevent infections.

First, educate yourself about viruses in general and particular virus types. When you are bitten, your motivation to find out what's going on will increase. Don't wait. Check out the sites below, some of which are operated by vendors of anti-virus products. Their motivation is to inform you about viruses in the hope you will buy their product. If you use Microsoft products, visit their web site and download their free tools to combat macro viruses.

Second, purchase — and use — a good anti-virus program. Scan your hard drive regularly and scan your floppies, too. If you receive a floppy disk from someone, scan it for viruses before you open a file on it. Likewise, when you send a floppy to someone, scan it before you mail it out. It is very embarrassing to be told that you were the source of a virus outbreak.

Third, isolate e-mail attachments and Web site downloads in a separate directory and scan them before you open them. Likewise, to protect your genealogy data, isolate GEDCOMs and family information by importing them only into separate genealogy files, never into your main data file. Opening and reading an e-mail message cannot infect your computer. However, e-mails can carry viruses in attached files. You should be familiar with where your e-mail program puts attached files when they arrive. If you suspect an attachment contains a virus, scan it with a good anti-virus program before you open it.

Fourth, back up your hard drive, or at least your key data files, regularly. Then, even if a virus or other disaster strikes, you can always recover your data.

Fifth, do not forward any message about an impending virus attack. Leave the warning messages to the agencies and firms in the business. They can tell a real virus from a hoax. Check their sites for information about hoaxes before you fire off a warning message.

Reference Sites for Computer Virus Information

Commercial anti-virus vendors:

Independent Sites:

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