Just say 'no' to dancing-pig e-mail

'Given a choice between dancing pigs and security, users will pick dancing pigs every time.'-Ed Felten, associate professor of computer science, Princeton University

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I thought a lot about dancing pigs last week. True, the e-mail-virus attachment that crashed so many computer systems last week was supposed to be a love letter. But when it comes to computer security, pigs and love letters have a lot in common. And you should avoid both of them at all costs.

Over the next few weeks, we're going to hear a lot about software programs that will protect computers from these attacks. Some of these programs are very good: Symantec's Norton Anti-virus is a good fee-based product, while Finjan's SurfinGuard Personal Internet Security software (available for free at its Web site) is also a program that people should have on their computers, at home and at work.

But in the end, I believe there are only two things that can be done - one personal, one public - to protect people and businesses from these malicious behaviors in the future.

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The personal one is very simple, yet very hard to do. It goes like this: Don't open e-mail attachments of any kind, ever. Basically, keep your hands and eyes off dancing pigs. Tell this to everyone in your office and your family, and you'll have very few e-mail-virus problems. Any e-mail from someone you don't know should just be deleted immediately, without a second thought.

Unexpected e-mails from people you do know should not be opened until you've checked with the sender.

If you do this all the time, you'll probably be safe. I have not opened an e-mail attachment in two years. While everyone else in our office was knocked off e-mail by the bug last week, I was able to continue using my e-mail program because (1) I never open attachments and (2) I will not use Microsoft's Outlook e-mail platform. It has become so popular and widespread (and if you believe chat groups on the Internet, riddled with security holes) that almost all e-mail virus writers write exclusively for Outlook.

Public protection is more difficult. These days most e-mail viruses are written by crackers (malicious hackers) outside the US. That's because, if you write it from inside the US, you will most likely be caught. And it's increasingly likely that you will go to jail. This is much more difficult in countries where they may not even have laws against computer crimes.

That's why we need an international pact of the kind that brought an end to air hijacking in the '70s. Once crackers know they'll be hunted down for their deeds, regardless of where they may live, or that they will be extradited to a country where they will be prosecuted, it may make the people who write these viruses think twice before they do.

But ultimately, international laws will only go so far. Be your own best friend when it comes to computer security. Then, in the future, love letters from secret admirers will only be welcome if they come via regular mail.

*Tom Regan is the associate editor of The Christian Science Monitor's Web site, csmonitor.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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