The antivirus paranoia culture

Recently, I’ve spent some time looking at the computer section of Yahoo! Answers, and it’s a fascinating place from a sociological perspective. If the questions and answers popular there are indicative of what common attitudes and practices are among Windows and Mac users, then this is how a typical user operates:

  • Install free antivirus software
  • Install Limewire and use it to download copyrighted songs and movies as well as software cracks.
  • Run as administrator all the time (no limited user account).
  • Get infected with a virus or rogue.
  • Ask for suggestions about a better antivirus.
  • Consider that maybe paid antivirus solutions may be more effective than free ones.
  • Consider that Frostwire may be safer than Limewire.
  • Switch antiviruses.
  • Switch P2P application.
  • Get infected again.
  • Try to remove the infection with MalwareBytes.
  • Spend hours trying to remove infections with various other programs.
  • Eventually give up and reformat entire drive without backing up files.
  • Continue cycle.

There also seems to be a popular misconception that Windows’ malware problem has to do primarily with its popularity and not any flaw in security (like running as administrator by default all the time). So when a trojan (which requires user stupidity, not a flaw in the security of the operating system) appears for Mac OS X, the Windows users on Yahoo! Answers say “Aha! See? Macs get viruses too. They’re no more secure than Windows” and the Mac users on Yahoo! Answers say “Oh, no. What antivirus should I use to protect my Mac? I thought Macs were immune to viruses.”

I hope you see the problem here. Antivirus software companies may not be so nefarious as to actually create viruses (though maybe they do—we don’t have any irrefutable evidence either way), but they have definitely created a culture of paranoia and not just healthy fear.

Most computer users are paralyzed when it comes to security. They have no concept whatsoever as to what makes a computer secure or insecure. They just think “If I run ‘the best’ antivirus software, I can do whatever I want and my computer will be safe.”

Yet, I’d be willing to bet that most of these people would be better at spotting a fake valet before handing over the keys to their cars and would know better than to actively seek out burglars to give out their bank ATM cards and PIN codes to.

What can we do to turn around this culture of paranoia and turn it into proper, healthy fear properly channeled through education and good practice?

I used to be part of this culture, back when I was an exclusive Windows user. I got malware of some kind and panicked. And I thought if I just got a “better” antivirus and changed from Internet Explorer to Firefox that my security would be so much better.

It wasn’t until I got more familiar with the worlds of Mac OS X and Ubuntu that I realized privilege separation matters. Yes, it’s theoretically conceivable that malware could infect a limited user account if it were designed that way, but if it did and was detected in a short amount of time, then it could be easily removed. Malware as it is now thrives because it digs deeply into the Windows system files so that booting into safe mode or trying to use system restore to get rid of it isn’t enough. If you use a limited user account, no system files will be affected, and if malware were ever designed to affect a limited user account, you could just delete that account and carry on.

More importantly, the paranoia comes from a total lack of understanding about how computers become infected with malware. They have the same understanding of computer diseases that “doctors” had about human diseases centuries ago. It’s a bad humor. It’s punishment for doing something evil. It’s not germs you actually have to come in contact with.

A lot of malware comes in not through software flaws but through user flaws. Social engineering is a great way to get malware installed because Microsoft, Apple, and Linux developers can do nothing about it through better programming. If you can trick the user into installing “the codec you need to watch this video” or “this pirated version of iWork” or “this cool new software,” then any kind of built-in security goes out the window.

Couldn’t these users who suffer from such paranoia and ignorance save themselves a lot of heartache if they did a few simple things?

  1. Use a limited user account in Windows
  2. Take ten minutes to read up on social engineering and how not to be a victim of it
  3. Back up personal files regularly
  4. Use Norton Ghost or Acronis True Image to image a working installation so a reinstall wouldn’t take so long
  5. Install system security updates

The way a lot of people run their computers, it’s like having rampant unprotected sex and then getting an HIV test every six months. That won’t stop HIV! Get a condom! Computers have condoms too, even though Microsoft doesn’t make them very easy to put on.