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03/08/2004 Archived Entry: "Bulletproof computing: anti-virus"

Following up on the proposal for "email stamps"... I'd say that Bill Gates is either out of touch with reality (likely) or a complete dunderhead (not improbable). Two words, Bill: email groups. As stingy as I am with my on-line time, I subscribe to about ten email lists and manage four. A penny per email may not sound like much to Sir Bill, but it would take the ifeminists newsletter out of the "free" category. And how does the dolt think a list can be sent to 10,000 subscribers if each individual message requires 10 seconds of problem-solving? Does he know how many such lists exist? On second thought, "dunderhead" seems the likelier explanation. (As I've said before, Bill has an endless number of "solutions" that don't involve fixing his lousy software.)

Back to bulletproofing your PC... Some are probably wondering why I listed anti-virus software as the fifth line of defense, rather than the third. This is because anti-virus software, while important, is nowadays largely a "reactive" measure. New viruses are designed to evade virus scanners, so the anti-virus teams are always "catching up" to the virus writers...and of course most personal computers lag behind the latest updates. Some pundits argue that, for this reason, virus scanners are the wrong solution.

But virus scanners are useful in catching old and known viruses...which still circulate in astonishing numbers. They can be very helpful in removing virus infections. And in some cases they can even protect against unknown viruses.

Windows. If you use Windows, you must have anti-virus software. That's because 99% of the 100,000-plus known viruses are targeted at your computer, and you are going to be exposed sooner or later. Windows anti-virus products are a booming industry:

Any anti-virus product will scan your hard disk, and can also scan floppy disks or downloaded software. Many of them can also scan incoming email, and this is becoming an essential feature. All should be able to be regularly updated with new virus "signatures"; sometimes this is free and sometimes you pay for this.

Back when we were using Windows, I had good experience with the free AVG scanner. It installed easily, checked incoming and outgoing email, did automatic disk scans in the wee hours of the morning, and took care of its own updates. The updates seemed to be reasonably prompt and included the latest viruses. And it worked smoothly with Windows 9x and Eudora. (Before AVG I used McAfee, which I had to remove because its updates began crashing my older Windows system.)

Make sure you choose a product that gets regular virus updates, and make sure you install them. As far as I know, all modern virus scanners can be securely updated over the Internet.

Linux. Since I installed Linux 14 months ago, I haven't used a virus scanner on my PC. In this I am like most of the Linux community, who consider themselves basically immune to PC viruses. However, as the Linux share of the desktop market increases -- currently 3%, forecast to increase to 10% by 2006 -- they will begin to attract the attention of virus writers. And even Linux systems have vulnerabilities.

A year or so ago, Lindows.com raised a few eyebrows by offer to sell a virus scanner with their Linux distribution. ("Virus scanner? Why, those are for Windows users.") Now other companies are offering Linux products, and more power to them:

When you're searching, the key phrase is "Linux desktop" or "Linux workstation." Several companies (including AVG) make anti-virus products for Linux "servers"; these are intended for mail servers such as used by a large corporation or an Internet Service Provider. They're not for home or small-office use.

I plan to download and install F-Prot. I'm curious to see what it does, and how well it does it, and even though we're using Linux I want to restore this missing layer of our defenses. (After all, we still receive .doc files.) I'm also curious to hear from anyone who has used one of the other desktop Linux anti-virus products.

Disclaimer: except for AVG for Windows and an older version of McAfee for Windows, I haven't tried any of these products. Also, these are not intended to be exhaustive lists, just what I've found in casual searching.


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