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The worm that didn't turn up

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Like many people last week, I received an urgent email from our network manager. It reads, in part: 'A new virus "W32/IRCBot.worm! MS05-039" is active out there and many machines are already infected. Therefore, everyone is requested to update their anti-virus and windows IMMEDIATELY. McAfee VirusScan 7 does not show the infection so McAfee VirusScan 8.0i (with today's update 4560) is required to detect and remove the worm. Hijackthis, Rootkit Revealer and FPORT are not effective with the hack. All Windows machines that have not been patched with the latest MS05-039 patch are vulnerable to this worm. Please either bring them up to date with the latest MS patches and anti-virus software or remove them from the network until they have been brought up to date.

'The MS05-039 patch for different versions of MS Windows can be downloaded from...'.

And so it goes on. For some people on this particular network, this message has the makings of a nightmare. I'm thinking particularly of students writing their dissertations who are already teetering on the brink of nervous exhaustion. The thought that the machine on which they are working night and day has been compromised by another piece of vicious malware might be what tips them over the edge.

And these are the lucky ones because they work in an institution where competent technical support is at hand. Over the holidays, I met lots of people who have to shift for themselves, who don't have access to computing expertise. They have PCs they use for word processing, email and web-browsing.

Many of their machines have been infected by viruses, spyware and adware. They have no idea how to rid themselves of these pestilences. And even when they have anti-virus software installed, they find it difficult or confusing to keep their defences up to date, especially if they access the net via dial-up lines. Most of them have no idea what a firewall is. And in some cases they are driven to the edge of hysteria by the sheer difficulty of operating a PC.

One of the great mysteries of the age is why people put up with this pain. If the automobile industry produced such clumsy, insecure and vulnerable vehicles, those car company executives who had escaped lynching would be in jail for their own protection. And their companies would be bankrupt because consumers wouldn't buy such lousy products. But somehow, computing's different. And not just metaphorically - they are also legally privileged: software companies that produce faulty or unsafe products are allowed to escape liability for the damage and stress they cause.

So I ask again: why do people put up with it? One possible answer is that they believe there is no alternative: if they wish to have the benefits of computing (so they reason) they must put up with the pain. Yet they must know by now that this is baloney - real alternatives do exist.

In my case, for example, I have not used a Windows machine for any serious purpose since 1999. And in those six years, I have never had a computer virus, trojan or worm. Not a single one. Neither has any adware or spyware taken over my browser (which also comes with a facility for automatically blocking pop-up windows as well as the ability to do tabbed browsing). And all this despite being connected to the net 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

How have I achieved this blissful freedom? Simple: by using only computers running Apple or Linux software. No special geeky skills required - just common sense and a desire to avoid pain. For six years, I have enjoyed all the benefits of networked computing without experiencing any of the downsides.

But now comes the really puzzling bit. When friends and family tell me their woeful stories of viruses and worms, I have learnt to bite my tongue and make sympathetic, but incoherent noises. This was not how I used to react. Once upon a time I would say, in a smugly superior way, that if people would insist on supping with the devil then they should expect to get scorched; and if they wished to get off this torture-rack then they should move to a different - Apple or Linux - platform.

But I rapidly learnt this was not what these wretches want to hear. They do not want to be told that they should abandon their Microsoft-ridden machines and worship in a different church. So in the end, I stopped telling them about Apple and Linux and began mouthing the soothing bromides favoured by vicars when dealing with terminal cases.

And the moral of the story? Simply this: as far as computing is concerned, most people are masochists. And I am a sadist, because I have stopped flogging them with the truth.

By John Naughton
The Observer

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