Computer Viruses and Genealogy Mailing Lists

A version of this article first appeared in the March/April 2002 issue of Ancestry Magazine

By Mark Howells

To the informed and prepared, computer viruses are little more than "noise on the wires" - an annoyance but rarely a disaster. To the uninformed and unprepared, computer viruses seem to be a frightening monster of hideous proportions.

Most of us are somewhere in between these two ends of this spectrum of reaction. Dealing with computer viruses is simply one of the costs of sharing information via computers. Since sharing our research is a big part of genealogy, we family historians tend to be more concerned about sharing the "bad" as well as the "good".

Because of the fear, uncertainty, and doubt surrounding computer viruses, genealogy mailing list subscribers often start behaving as if the world were ending when confronted by a computer virus. In an effort to interdict these panic attacks, this article will address some of the common concerns regarding computer viruses and genealogy mailing lists.

What are they?

Computer viruses are (usually) malicious computer programs which run on your PC unbeknownst to you. One of their characteristics is that they attempt to replicate themselves and they attempt to spread themselves to other computers. The "payload" of a virus - the action that it is programmed to perform - can vary from harmless prank to the erasure of your hard drives. There are easily over 60,000 different known viruses in the world. Some are confined to a few test labs and some are rampant "in the wild". Viruses differ significantly in the operating systems which they target and the replication methods that they use. Of most common concern for genealogists are those which reproduce themselves using e-mail. These tend to spread by taking advantage of one particular brand or version of e-mail software.

For more information on computer viruses, your web browser at

Cyndi's List - Computer Viruses at

for variety of informative links. Read up on what computer viruses are and what they can do. Education is one of your best defenses against computer viruses.

Who Writes Them?

Viruses do not arise spontaneously on a computer. There is a human programmer behind every virus. Profiling done on virus writers reveals that most of them are trying to show off their "technical" computing skills. However, there is a great diversity of reasons for this particular type of malicious behavior. Some do it for knowledge, some for fame, some to join the "underground fraternity" of virus writers, and some out of sheer malice towards others. And they're not all "kids". The author of the "Melissa" virus was 30 years old when he was arrested. Most viruses aren't written from scratch but are copies of previously released viruses which are then tweaked to behave differently.

Obviously, family historians obsessed with data preservation have neither the time nor the inclination to create these malicious programs. If you are unfortunate enough to receive a virus from a fellow genealogists, odds are high that they not only didn't create the virus but may be completely unaware that they are themselves infected. Many of the recent computer viruses which spread via e-mail hide their presence from the computer's owner. They then use the e-mail program on that computer to send out infected e-mail messages unbeknownst to the owner.

Anti-Virus Software

To reduce computer viruses to a minor nuisance, obtain a reputable anti-virus software program and keep its anti-virus patterns up-to-date. There are two anti-virus programs which I have had professional and personal experience with:

Symantec's Norton AntiVirus at


McAfee's VirusScan at

Both products are excellent and are used extensively by Fortune 500 corporations to protect their PCs. There are dozens and dozens of other anti-virus programs available. Some are even shareware or freeware. This is one of those cases where "you get what you pay for" and it is worthwhile to invest some money into a name-brand anti-virus program. The above two products have worked well for my household and the corporations I have worked for. These products can be configured to be "on" constantly in the background processing of your computer so that they are continuously scanning for incoming viruses.

Constant Vigilance

Having a good anti-virus software program is necessary but not sufficient for ongoing protection. As new viruses are being invented all the time, so the reputable anti-virus software vendors try to keep up with the new viruses by developing new anti-virus patterns to stop them. The anti-virus patterns or virus signatures are the unique identifier that allows anti-virus to recognize individual viruses.

What this means is that you need to keep your anti-virus software patterns updated on a regular basis. Your anti-virus software can only stop the viruses it knows about and unless you keep it updated, it won't know about the new ones and will let them through. You can do this manually by visiting the vendor's web site to download the new anti-virus patterns. Alternately, the aforementioned two vendors have automatic update features which will make the download of new anti-virus patterns a no-brainer. With automatic updates, your anti-virus software can really be "set and forget".

Good anti-virus software turns receiving a computer virus into a non-event. Configured to constantly scan for viruses as a background process, any incoming e-mail and any attachments are automatically checked for computer viruses. I further configure my software to simply delete the viruses without informing me so that I don't even get a bothersome question about what to do with the virus itself. Combined with automated updates for new anti-virus patterns, such a configuration makes computer viruses no big deal.

Backup, Backup, Backup

There is one way and one way only to fully protect your computer from computer viruses. That is to make regular backups of the important data on your computer. Keep these backups somewhere safe. The point behind the backups is that if your anti-virus software fails to detect a new virus (and this is possible), you will be able to recover the important information on your computer from backups made before the virus hit you. That's worth repeating again. You can not be 100% protected by anti-virus software. A good old fashion backup disc or tape is the absolute best defense against all computer viruses.

Hue & Cry

Warnings, complaints, cures, comments, or curses about computer viruses are usually not appreciated on genealogy mailing lists. Computer viruses are not about genealogy, after all. Viruses are rarely a universal problem for everyone on the mailing list. Viruses take advantage of specific operating systems and specific e-mail software to spread themselves. Since all of the subscribers to a particular mailing list are probably not using the same operating system or the same e-mail software programs, a virus problem for one subscriber may be a non-event for another. Therefore, computer virus warnings (which are often hoaxes anyway) and discussions about viruses are usually a waste of time on genealogy mailing lists. If you simply MUST discuss computer viruses with someone, there is a RootsWeb mailing list just for that purpose at:

The VIRUS-DISCUSSION Mailing List at

Fact of Life

Computer viruses are here to stay. They are not going to go away. New ones will continue to infect the uninformed and unprepared. Just like being a responsible automobile owner requires you to keep your brakes in good repair, so being a responsible computer owner obligates you to keep your anti-virus software protection and data backups up-to-date. It's rather like a public health issue. Your individual behavior regarding computer viruses can and will have an impact on your electronic neighbors and the genealogical community as a whole.

Some Common Questions About Viruses & Mailing Lists

  • Can I get a computer virus from the RootsWeb genealogy mailing lists?

    Highly unlikely. Most common computer viruses spread themselves via e-mail as attachments to e-mail messages. The RootsWeb genealogy mailing lists scan for and remove attachments sent into the mailing lists. It is possible that computer viruses which spread by e-mail but do not use attachments to do so may be propagated by RootsWeb mailing lists. Such a method of virus propagation is more complex than using attachments and would likely be e-mail software specific. Because of this, the potential for such a virus is limited. There have been no reports of such a virus using the RootsWeb mailing lists to spread itself.

  • Can another subscriber to the mailing list send me a virus?

    Yes. While the RootsWeb genealogy mailing lists do not spread computer viruses directly to their subscribers, individual subscribers may infect other subscribers. Some recent computer viruses replicate themselves by sending copies of themselves out to anyone the infected person has received e-mails from. This means that if you post a message to a RootsWeb mailing list and an infected subscriber receives it in individual message mode (not digest mode which changes the FROM e-mail address), they may send back a computer virus to your e-mail address directly.

  • Did the person who sent me the virus do so maliciously?

    Probably not. They are most likely a victim of the computer virus themselves. Recent computer viruses have the ability to infect a person's e-mail software and send out e-mails to others without a person's knowledge. The person who your virus appears to come from may have no idea that they have a virus or are sending one out to others.

  • Who should I inform about the virus?

    You should e-mail the person who sent you the virus directly if you are able to determine their correct return address from the infected message they sent you. Charitably inform them that they may have a computer virus and that they should run an updated anti-virus program against their machine to clean it up. It is safe to e-mail them since if your anti-virus software stopped the virus from them once, it will likely stop the virus again if your message triggers another one.

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Computer Viruses and Genealogy Mailing Lists
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Updated May 15, 2002

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