Guest column: It's getting hard to tell whom to trust these days

In this age of internet scams and computer virus hoaxes, it's getting gosh-darn difficult to decide whom you can trust any more. (Aside: the phrase "gosh-darn" rarely passes my lips. As a serious-minded editor of a networking publication, a certain amount of propriety is required on my part.)It could be argued that, as a society, we are much too trusting, in fact. Having a less-violent populace than our gun-adoring southern neighbours -- and subsequently a less-suspicious attitude toward every stranger we meet -- Canadians especially seem to like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

Perhaps that's why organisations such as ITAC (the Information Technology Association of Canada) feels it is its duty to help protect the Canadian population from computer viruses lurking in e-mail attachments sent and received by millions of internet users each and every day.

A letter sent in July from ITAC to Canada's Justice Minister Anne McLellan calls for a crackdown on computer virus crimes. ITAC wants stiffer penalties for virus creators, and the association even suggests that possession of virus-making tools should be a punishable offence.

There's no denying that viruses are vexatious and akin to harassment. With a great deal of sheepishness I tell you my own organisation was hit by Worm.ExploreZip earlier in the year. Several Microsoft Office application files on our network were wiped out but soon restored thanks to effective back-up practices here.

The creator(s) of Worm.ExploreZip know a thing or two about human nature. In order to propagate itself, Worm.ExploreZip waits for an infected user to receive e-mail, then it sends an auto-reply message stating, "Hi [name]! I received your e-mail and I shall send you a reply ASAP. Till then, take a look at the attached Zipped docs. Bye."

Having established some semblance of trust with the unsuspecting recipient, the worm unleashes itself when the zipped_files.exe attachment is opened. Very crafty. That rule on most companies' virus policy lists about never opening attachments from people you don't know goes right out the window.

So maybe the best policy is to just trust no one -- every e-mail you receive with an attachment, chuck it. That is, at least until your organisation has put in place a security model that provides undeniable proof someone is whom they say they are. (The digital certificate market has been looking for a killer application -- maybe computer viruses such as Worm.ExploreZip will provide the killer reason for digital certificate ubiquity in the future.)Of course, tossing every e-mail attachment you receive is a bit extreme. Do you have better suggestions for securing the enterprise against pesky viruses and worm invasions? How do you determine whom you can trust? Let us know and we'll share your ideas with your peers.

E-mail your comments to linda_stuart@lti.on.ca

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