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The E-Mail Hoax And The Virus

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The year 2000 hosted a variety of new computer viruses that brought ruthless destruction 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 terrorized 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 that 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 computer1.

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-MAIL TITLED "CHRISTMAS SURPRISE", DO NOT OPEN IT! IT WILL COMPLETELY ERASE 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 is urged to propagate the message to many other users. Keep in mind that the news that these e-mails bring does not necessarily 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 if readers make copies of the letter and send it to a pool of their friends2. 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 FBI, 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 the first 50 e-mail addresses listed in the user's address book.3 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



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