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Student computers face virus threats

John-Paul Witt | Friday, October 3, 2008

Members of the Notre Dame community continue to face threats from computer viruses, and students’ computers in particular present a “steady rate” of virus infections, according to Mike Chapple, Information Security Program Manager of the Office of Information Technologies at Notre Dame.

“[We] see virus infections every year, happening most often on student systems,” Chapple said.

Computer viruses are “malicious code, bad applications or e-mails or websites that attempt to take control of your computer or do bad things to your computer,” according to Aaron Striegel, assistant professor of Computer Science and Engineering.

Student systems are particularly vulnerable to viruses because they often lack up-to-date anti-virus software, according to Chapple.

“Not only should students have anti-virus software installed, they must also [download] updates,” Chapple said, “If software hasn’t been updated in months it won’t work against [new] viruses that have appeared in that time.”

Anti-virus software is designed to examine the communications passing through a computer from the Internet or from CDs or flash drives to determine if they are infected with a virus, according to Striegel.

“Each virus has a signature that defines it, certain bits of it are distinct,” Striegel said, “So anti-virus [software programs] have lists of all known viruses and characteristics that all viruses have, and they look for suspicious behavior.”

Anti-virus software that comes with new computers is often useable during a “trial period”, according to Chapple, and students often do not want to pay after the trial period is over. However, Notre Dame offers a solution: free anti-virus software.

“We want students to know that we offer anti-virus software at no charge, and students will get updates as long as they’re affiliated with the University,” Chapple said, “[The software is] available at secure.nd.edu and protects against viruses and spyware.”

Viruses can delete all the files on a computer or render it unable to operate applications, and can also infect multiple computers and form a “botnet, an army of ‘zombie’ machines used to send spam [e-mails] or attack other computers,” Striegel said.

Another important computer security tool is called a firewall, which “only authorizes certain applications to talk to your computer,” and thereby prevents “people from just sending things to your computer”, Striegel said.

“A firewall is like call waiting, you only take the calls your want and everyone else is on your do-not-call list,” Striegel said, “Windows machines have a host firewall by default – you should turn that on – and Notre Dame has its own firewall to keep out bad traffic.”

No one operating system, like Microsoft Windows or Apple’s Mac OS X, is safe from the threat posed by viruses, according to Chapple, although because there are more PCs using Windows, there are “a lot more viruses out there for the Windows operating system.”

The simplest solution regardless of the type of computer or operating system is to “install antivirus software, let it run, and let it protect you.”

If, however, a computer is infected by a virus the best course of action is to bring it to the OIT service center on the first floor of the IT Center building, located next to the Hesburgh Library, Chapple said.

“The technicians [at the service center] have the tools and training to make sure the virus is off your computer,” Chapple said.