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
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.
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
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
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: