Fighting back the computer viruses

In light of recent computer virus activity on University of Calgary computer networks, several dozen people gathered to learn how to keep their machines safe. The Keeping Our Computer Environment Safe seminar on Wed., Oct. 8 was well-attended by past and potential victims of computer viruses and worms who want to prevent future infections.

"Unfortunately, the problem doesn’t want to go away by itself," said U of C it Network Services Manager Tom Seto. "Since the end of August, we have been hit weekly with debilitating stuff on our network."

According to Seto, each of the five most disruptive worms to hit campus since August temporarily disabled some portion of the U of C computer network with large volumes of viral traffic. In September, viruses caused several network outages and 742,842 infected e-mail messages were stopped by U of C mail servers.

"Having vulnerable machines that can take out our network is untenable," said Seto. "Because of the nature of these viruses, we can’t work in a reactive mode."

Attendees were instructed to secure their computers using a few simple methods, including properly maintaining computer software and using strong passwords. Recent viruses took advantage of software bugs to infect networked computers.

"Some of these things we ask users to do will become mandatory in order to remain on our network," warned Seto.

Recently, network operators have started scanning for computers with bugs that make them vulnerable to virus or worm infection. To prevent the spread of infection, computers are disconnected from the network until the vulnerabilities are patched.

it Desktop Technology Publisher instructor Michelle Warner stressed the importance of using Windows Update to maintain computers running Microsoft Windows operating systems and the Microsoft Office suite.

"When a Microsoft product is released, it’s not perfect," she said. "Bugs in programs can crash Windows or make you lose work, but they can also be security holes."

According to Warner, properly patched operating systems and applications would not have been as vulnerable to some recent infections. Warner also suggested users install and maintain antivirus software-available for free to U of C students, faculty and staff-to protect against emergent viruses.

"Viruses are unpredictable. They could infect computers, stay latent for several months, and then trigger," she said. "There are new viruses every day. The U of C does its best to keep up."

Another concern was the use of weak, easily guessable passwords on computers.

"Currently, the only limitation is in your e-mail password," said Warner. "There is currently no policy on Windows passwords, but in the future there may be. The last virus to hit campus used weak passwords to gain access to the campus network, so that’s why we’re hitting passwords so strongly."

Warner said using long passwords that contain mixed case and special characters would help keep viruses and would-be hackers at bay.

She also suggested the use of hardware or software firewalls in addition to antivirus software for added security on home computers.

Information from the seminar and free antivirus and firewall software can be found at www.ucalgary.ca/it/virus/

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