The E-Mail Hoax and the Virus

Category : Essays

The year 2000 hosted a variety of new computer viruses that brought ruthless distribution to many computer systems as well as widespread damage to many businesses. During this year, a malicious Trojan horse program attacked Microsoft, and the "Melissa" virus terrorize (the cyber-community of users who used Outlook Express; as their e-mail program. While the sophistication of viruses continues to evolve, the basis for their pervasive nature remains the same. In general, computer viruses are programs [hat latch onto other program files that dwell on the hard drive of a computer, and are usually inadvertently downloaded by the user onto the computer.

The virus is activated when the program it is attached to is launched, and its destructive acts include overwriting system files, deleting valuable data, and doing various other types of damage. These programs then replicate themselves, spreading to other disks or systems connected to the computer. Thinking on that, let; us look at the e-mail hoax. Surely one time or another you have received e-mail forwarded by one of your friends saying something similar to, "URGENT! IF YOU RECEIVE AN E-MAIE TITLED "CHRISTMAS SURPRISE", DO NOT OPEN IT! IT WILE COMPLETELY ERASES YOUR HARD DRIVE. PASS THIS ON TO ALL YOUR FRIENDS!"

This is an example of an e-mail hoax, which is electronic mail propaganda intended to convince the user to believe some incredible idea, in which the user urged to propagate the message to many other users. Keep in mind that the news that these e-mails bring does no! Unnecessarily have to be about computer viruses.

Other examples of these types of e-mails include chain letters, which originally began Their history as letters that promise a significant reward it readers make copies of the letter and send it to a pool of their friends. These letters nowadays use e-mail and propagate themselves by promising some reward for forwarding the message.

We can conclude, therefore, that a common characteristic of the e-mail hoax or chain letter is the threat of the horrible consequences or the loss of a rewarding opportunity if the reader ignores the e-mail. Another common detail is the insistence that high-level authorities have announced or are covering the issue, citing the FBL Microsoft, or USA Today.

The most important similarity between the computer virus and the e-mail hoax is the widespread effect that these entities can have. One of the unique attributes of a computer virus is its ability to replicate itself, and spread to other systems. The "Melissa" virus, one of the most recent electronic plagues, takes advantage of the macro programming language built into Microsoft Word. While its destructive capabilities specialized in infecting and altering Word templates and files, its reproductive feature lays in its ability to send itself to tire first 50 e-mail addresses listed in the user's address book-

In re-examining the less technically sophisticated e-mail hoax, let us remember the fact that many of us who first received one of these messages believed it, whether reluctantly or not. A common feeling that we experienced was the necessity, even urgency to forward the e-mail to our friends just in case the news was true. As a result, when we heroically forward these messages to our friends, they in turn send them to their friends, thus propagating a hoax into a network-wide disturbance. Both viruses and e-mail hoaxes have the capacity to spread like wildfire.

After highlighting earlier about the tremendous effect that one person can have on a business by downloading infected files, it is necessary to realize the enormous impact that one can have on the successful propagation of hoaxes. While it is easy to blame the virus programmer as criminally responsible for disrupting the functionality of a company and costing it millions of dollars in damage, we should not ignore how the  virus has fed on the ignorance of the user. As aforementioned, a computer system usually receives a virus infection because Of some unintentional action of the user, including the act of downloading an infected program from the internet and executing it.

The user is usually unaware of the resident program and, in many circumstances, not knowledgeable enough to take sufficient precautions to protect their system. Similarly, users that are unaware of the falsity of e-mail hoaxes will be fooled by the e-mail, and spread the e-mail exponentially to users across the network. The success of an e-mail hoax depends on its ability to fool the reader into thinking that it is legitimate news. Like users who unwillingly introduce computer viruses into a computer system, gullible e-mall users unwittingly circulate hoaxes in the electronic network. The e-mail hoax is clearly like a virus in how it feeds on our ignorance.

Another important quality of both entities is their relative damage to their victims. While the outright damage caused by computer viruses is uncontested, the damage done by e- mail hoaxes takes a bit more thought to realize. While erroneous virus warnings may cause a scare, false warnings about security threats can cause more damage to the credibility of a company than the real thing4. A comparative example is how the stock market can crash or soar due to rumors, and rumors alone. Without validating the accuracy of reports, brokers may sell stock based on rumors that the company may go bankrupt.

Another example involves an alarming e-mail that was circulated during the year 2000 reporting the supposed demise of 14 historically black colleges and universities. This e-mail was a complete hoax/ and it caused significant damage to the reputations of those colleges as well as their ability to attract potential students. With the great deal of the use of communication through e-mail, it is easy to be fooled into believing these stories and subsequently forwarding misleading and ruinous information.

Looking at the similar tendencies for viruses and hoaxes to feed on the ignorance of users, to spread themselves rapidly, and to cause relative destruction, I argue that computer viruses and e-mail hoaxes are very similar in nature.

In addition, like viruses, some hoaxes are easily dismissed, similarly to how old viruses are detected, while more sophisticated hoaxes may be either invalidated by the emergence of the facts or by detecting a similar pattern of previous false messages. Yet while undoing the destruction of computer viruses can be a multimillion-dollar feat, the consistent way to curb the e-mail hoax disturbance is to stop forwarding these messages. I therefore encourage users to confirm the validity of any message before forwarding it to their friends. Otherwise we, as a high-tech computer generation, will continue to succumb to a vicious cycle of reading and propagating the hype that we receive in our inbox.


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