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Don’t let that virus win!

Now, imagine a world where in the middle of the night your computer gets going on its own and gets remotely controlled by someone thousands of miles away.. Puneet Mehrotra tells us more.

business Updated: Mar 25, 2008 23:00 IST

As you log off from your computer and head home after a hard day’s work you probably imagine all your information and your computer is safe and secure. Now, imagine a world where in the middle of the night your computer gets going on its own, even enters the username of your network administrator and the password – and gets remotely controlled by someone thousands of miles away. All this could happen without your even knowing that your computer has been hacked.

Sounds scary? Read on for more. You get an email from your email id to your own email id – on offer are banned drugs, pornography and many forbidden things. Legally, there may not be a problem because cyber crime sleuths can crack down on the imposter—but such moves can cause avoidable embarrassment.

It is not just your PC; in the digital world, pre-installed viruses that wake up like intruders can cause havoc in your mobile phones, digital music players like iPods and other gadgets.

Virus is a common word used to describe a code that can harm your computer or the content in it. But increasingly, “malicious code” would be a more appropriate term because, like real-world crime, computer crimes have become diverse in intent and methods. What started as a little joke decades ago is now one of the biggest nuisance in the digital world.

The virus is actually older than even the IBM PC and the irony is the first machine to be attacked by the virus was Steve Job’s Apple II – which kind of busts the myth that Apple’s machines are virus-free. The name of the virus was Elk Cloner and it spread through floppy disks. Elk Coner was a romantic at heart and did nothing more than flash a little poem on the screen.

It will get on all your disks
It will infiltrate your chips
Yes, it's Cloner!

Latter-day viruses are anything but romantic. Programmers writing malicious code have acquired new motives and methods.

Says Prabhat Singh, an executive at anti-virus software firm Symantec Corporation, “Until the mid-1990s malicious codes were usually loud in nature, named after its creator and intended to attain fame and have fun at the expense of damaging infrastructure. It was only in late 1990s that devious codes were created with an objective of financial gains.”

In other words, computer viruses have changed from being trespassers to burglars, spies and murderers.

Viruses today are not just a major nuisance but are hurting economies worldwide. According to an industry report, India’s banking and financial services industry has already lost $2 billion in phishing attacks and this figure is only going up.

Phishing involves the use of hyperlinks in emails which on clicking by gullible people triggers malicious code that can steal secret information like passwords from their computers. Take the case of something like Trojan.Silentbanker virus.

It has the potential to put Internet banking operations in jeopardy. It can target more than 400 banks. This Trojan downloads a configuration file that contains domain names of over 400 banks—it can then silently change the user-entered destination bank account details to the attacker's account details instead.

Of course, the Trojan ensures that the user does not notice this change by presenting them with the details they expect to see, while all the time sending the bank the attacker's details instead. Says Kartik Shahani of anti-virus software firm McAfee, “Key logger viruses (which track finger movements on computer keyboards) are a serious problem. They sit on your computer and pass on information like bank details.”

Says Ram Mohan of Afilias which manages the .in registry “With rising cyber crimes and potential threats faced by Indian organisations, there is certainly a need for a reliable and secure network.”

Just as we would not allow strangers into our houses without proper identification, computer users need to be careful. Precautions and small preventive steps can be useful – and particularly, users must be careful not to click on links in e-mails from unknown parties or open .exe files sent as attachments.

Anti-virus software applications are available in the market but need to be updated constantly as new viruses keep coming.

Grisoft.com offers free anti-virus software. Better-known and market-leading anti-virus software products and services are available from companies like Symantec and McAfee. But it is clear that computer safety and Internet transactions are no longer about sweeping your machine for viruses that could damage your hard disks. Says McAfee’s Shahani, “Today, you need multiple levels of protection and not just simply an anti-virus program. You need anti-phising, firewall, anti-virus (software) and more for data protection.”

(The author is an independent technology writer)