Viruses, Trojans, worms, spyware, malware, rootkits, phishing, botnets, cross-site scripting, vulnerabilities… the list of buzzwords goes on. These words all mean something to us in the security arena, but for the general public they’re just  indistinguishable words that geeks use.

Every few months, some new threat sparks up in the news and every other journalist that doesn’t really know what the threat is about wants to write an article about it to raise awareness. I remember one instance when I was younger, on 31st March of some year in the last millennium, my sister had told me not to turn on the computer on 1st April because we’d get a virus. My reaction was “Huh? Can’t we get a virus every day?” to which the reply was “Maybe, but I’ve heard that whoever uses the computer on 1st April will get a virus.”

All these years have passed and I couldn’t believe I was experiencing the same thing againI’m obviously talking about the Conficker worm. I’m not saying that awareness is a bad thing or that malware threats should not be reported. However, I think that it’s about time that the general public is educated in another manner.

Conficker infected millions of machines by exploiting a vulnerability in the NetBIOS implementation in Windows. What most people never got to know was that this vulnerability was fixed by Microsoft when Security Bulletin MS08-067 was released on 23rd October 2008. The first variant of Conficker was discovered on November 20th – almost a whole month after this vulnerability was fixed. What this means is that if  all users kept their systems up to date, then this worm would never have started to propagate, thus relieving the worldwide panic that resulted afterwards.

It’s time that everyone starts to think about protecting their systems all year round and not just reacting to overhyped news.  You wouldn’t leave the doors and windows of your house open and then panic if some intruder enters the building! People have had front doors for thousands of years;  so, why should the security of a computer be treated differently? It’s about time that even grandma understands that a computer connected to the Internet is like a house connected to the ground – if you leave it open, intruders from outside can come in.

So what can the average person do?

First thing, keep your software up to date, especially the Operating System. If all systems are kept up to date, most malware outbreaks would never occur. Secondly, some form of anti-virus technology should be present. In a home environment, normally the only thing that can be used is a client-based AV; in companies, emails can be scanned at the gateway, and so can web downloads. Thirdly, every computer user should be educated, and by this I don’t just mean a one-time boring speech that is delivered and forgotten, but continuous reminders on what is safe and what isn’t. Don’t we get adverts warning us not to drink and drive? So why shouldn’t companies put up notices warning their users not to download animated emails to watch singing kittens?