A mea culpa regarding my computer virus rants over the years. I wasn’t really that wrong since the latest represents an innovation in virus technology, but you can listen to me grovel anyway. Includes “bonus rant” on the First Amendment and free speech on the Internet.

Good Times
Ever since the “Good Times” e-mail virus hoax of a few years back, I’ve been telling everyone who needs telling that e-mail simply doesn’t work that way. Even if somebody sent you a virus in an e-mail attachment, you’d have to open the attachment (not just open the e-mail) before anything nasty could happen.

Well, it turns out the researchers at the Secure Programming Group in Finland’s Oulu University have proven me wrong. Because of a particular bug in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Outlook Express and in Netscape’s browser software, it is possible for a virus to be passed to you in an attachment without you opening it. In other words, although no one has yet suffered from this type of attack, the fake “Good Times” virus is now at least technologically possible. Here’s a bulletin from the CIAC on the issue for those of you who are as amazed to find out about this as I was.

While us Macintosh users are just as susceptible to this type of attack, the virus would still have to be specifically programmed for our computers, and as we all know, the odds are much higher that the virus would be PC-only. So let’s not get hysterical out there. (If you’re a PC user, go ahead and get hysterical.)

Also, it’s important to note that not all e-mail software contain the the flaw that allows the virus trick to work. For example, users of Qualcomm’s excellent Eudora e-mail software are unaffected by this bug. (I use Eudora Pro and highly recommend it.) Patches which fixes the security holes in the Microsoft and Netscape software should be available in the next couple of days. If you use Microsoft or Netscape software to handle your e-mail, downloading those patches should be up there on your computer priority list.

    UPDATE: According to Netscape, all versions of Communicator for the Macintosh are unaffected by the above-mentioned programming bug. Only if you have Microsoft software (boy is that typical) on your Mac do you have anything to worry about.

    UPDATE 2: The New York Times is reporting that Eudora 4.0 is effected by a bug similar to that mentioned above. According to The Times, this bug only effects Windows versions (because Qualcomm used Microsoft code in their program).

One final note for the good of humanity: Before you send somebody a warning about a virus, make sure you check it out for yourself! Otherwise you’re just spamming all your friends, freakin’ out the computer-illiterates among them unnecessarily, and wasting bandwidth (albeit all with good intentions).

Bad Times
Those dipstick anti-free speech far-right Republicans are at it again. Not content to listen to the U.S. Supreme Court’s very forceful, unanimous “No, that’s unconstitutional” regarding the Communications Decency Act, Senator Dan Coats (R-Indiana) has pushed through “CDA II,” a bill which “would punish commercial online distributors of material deemed harmful to minors with up to six months in jail and a $50,000 fine.”

I defy anyone to present me with a useful legal test for what is or is not “harmful to minors.” Coats tries in his legislation to do just this, but, in fact, he can’t possibly succeed. Coats defines “harmful to minors” strictly in sexual terms, whereas I, for one, would argue that violence is more harmful to kids than pictures of naked people will ever be. And at least I have plenty of evidence to prove my point; there’s never been an accepted scientific study which proved his. Coats even tries to blur this issue by defining “harmful to minors” as that which is unsuitable for minors, a vastly different thing.

I am not a First Amendment absolutist, but I do believe that the need to express oneself is an inherent component of humanity (along with midnight cravings for Rice Krispie Treats). The natural diversity of our species insures that there will be as many opinions out there as there are people. Some of these opinions I’ll like, some I’ll hate, but it’s important that this expression take place.

While I have right not to hear others’ opinions (or to be bombarded by them), I have no right to restrict others’ ability to say whatever they wish to communicate. And neither does the government. (I will grant that there can be certain time and place restrictions which are appropriate; the old yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre being a prime example.)

I know this anti-free speech stuff sounds like something out of Nazi Germany or the old Soviet Union, but it’s happening here and now in the United States. To find out what you can do to help defeat this idiotic legislation (which has already passed the U.S. Senate!), check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Blue Ribbon Campaign.

God help us, we’ve elected morons.