Feb 04, 2006 - Regarding virus emails

This was written to a friend regarding a chain email that they forwarded to me. The chain email warned about some other email out on the Internet that claimed to contain pictures, but instead would contain a computer virus:


"I think the real issue of virus emails is fear and control.

"The world of computers and email is complicated. It is confusing to many - to me also sometimes. In this case, the world of computer viruses in emails is a particular mysterious unknown. We have heard that the most insidious kind of viruses can infect your computer just by innocent opening of mail. And they usually come hidden in something else. The highly technical people might be able to recognize which emails carry bad stuff, but most people don't have that confidence. This creates a fear that we could be hit any time without being aware.

"When people feel exposed, not in control and defenseless, their natural reaction is commonly to huddle together and to repeatedly warn each other of any danger that they see. This is how I see the everyday experience of warning emails from friends. Reactions like this make me angry - sort of like the person in a neighborhood of hoodlums that doesn't want the neighbors to be hiding for safety and wants to be able to enjoy the outdoors without feeling in danger. (I hope my multiple metaphors are not confusing.)

"There is actually very good news here for you. You have a Macintosh computer, so there aren't any live viruses that will harm you. (I realize that the Mac platform isn't invulnerable, but it's risk of infection is very, very low.) Yes, there are viruses for some computers, but these don't have effect on yours. The Mac is simply a different species, and that is why it is not an issue.

"Now even though that is true, that does not liberate you for risky behavior on the internet. But it does mean that the principles for behavior are very simple. My recommendations are: Trust any content (pictures, documents) created by trusted friends.

  • Trust content less when you can't vouch for the trustworthiness of the content's creator.
  • Trust content less the more times it has been forwarded. AND
  • If you get email you know is spam, throw it away without opening it.
  • If you get a very strange, or a very unexpected attachment, don't open it.
  • If you get unexpected, too-good-to-be-true offers - consider them untrustworthy!

"When you look at that list, you can see that it follows skills of discernment that you already have.

"That leaves the technical things that you might be unsure about. I recommend finding someone who will be your technical advisor. Send only to them the emails you are technically unsure about. And then take wider action only on their advice.

"Another aspect of fear: the 'calling wolf' effect. You didn't know this, but this email has been circulating for 2 years, this virus has been around for 4 years, and Microsoft has had free updates that disable the virus for 3.5 years. I have not seen a virus warning in an email yet that was timely. Every one I have seen is old. The only time I have seen some timely warning in email was when someone I knew read a piece of real news and then told me about it. I would not want for you to play a part in calling wolf. Who do you trust the most? Might it not be the ones who send you rare, but very reliable warnings?

"The ironic thing is that the real virus in this case was a virus of the mind, a virus of the thoughts. An email convinced you to reproduce it and propagate it. It had no power of reproduction by itself, but it had found hosts that kept it going.

"If I get an email that has a good picture or an excellent story, and if I forward it, it is because I want to share a personal experience with someone else. In such a case I am also re-vouching for the trustworthiness and meaningfulness of the content that I am forwarding. (This relates that list of trust above.) However, mind virus emails don't relate to a shared, personally experience. In fact, looking at them from this perspective they make me feel used - or controlled, to go back to my original thesis.

"In summary: You can have confidence and not fear. Don't let nuisance emails control you. The skills you need for safe interaction on the Internet are skills that you already have. They mostly are skills of trust and discernment about people, and not technical skills."