Could that gadget you bought to share your photos actually be sharing YOUR personal information?
Electronic viruses are a costly annoyance for computer users and they’re finding their way on to systems from gadgets purchased from your favorite retail store.
The digital devils that infect your system range from annoying replicators to devastating file destroyers and personal information extractors. The danger of these buggers is severe. Recent reports, including this article from the Associated Press, give users new cause for concern.
A batch of digital photo frames sold at Target, Best Buy and other stores are reported to have been infected with a computer virus at the manufacturer. Even Apple’s iPod has been affected – though instances are slim. While rare, the frightening reality is that it is possible to get a free virus with purchase of electronic gadget!
Rogue viruses pre-installed on devices such as photo frames or music players are not said to be the work of hackers – though it’s not a far stretch. Rather, these cases seem linked to careless practices at China device makers.
Imagine it could happen something like this:
A worker at the Chinese factory brings in their iPod and notice a low battery. Not wanting to be stuck on the train without their tunes, they plug the music player into one of the photo frames to charge. Seems innocent, but now the frame is contaminated. Oh… guess what? That frame was the “master image” for all photo frames shipping to a retailer in the States. To quote Homer, “Doh!”
Even if the gadget maker provides isolated iPod charging stations, they’re not completely immune from this nightmare. Let’s say you buy a digital camera (or a memory card for that camera, an e-book reader, a music player, even a remote control – anything that connects to a computer) and decide you don’t like it so you take it back for a refund. The store employee, desperate to make a commission, resells that fancy photo-taker without sending it back to be wiped clean. The next buyer gets a deal on an “open box” model – with more than a discounted price: a free bonus computer virus.
Finally, it should be noted that most devices are checked out and don’t contain any malicious software. Software makers, for example, meticulously check for all-known viruses before shipping boxes of software to stores. The ultimate responsibility lies to you, the user, which leads to…
Here are some tips to protect yourself, and valuable personal information, when buying a new gadget.
- Buy from a reputable dealer. Those shady back-alley deals that are too-good-to-be true not only increase your chances of catchy a computer cold, but they’ll be less supportive (or have moved on to another alley) when you go back for a refund.
- Always check any new devices. Anything that could, should, or would connect to your computer should be checked frequently. All gadgets with the initials “USB” – the most common means of connecting peripherals to your PC – should be automatically checked. Don’t forget about wireless devices! Cell phones using blue tooth and hard drives with WiFi are also at risk. Plug ‘em in to your computer and run a virus scan (with the latest updates!) before you load files, music, or expose the potentially corrupt device to other systems and users.
- In case of virus: UNPLUG. If your computer finds a virus on a connected gadget unplug the device AND disconnect your computer. Shut down any connections to the Internet, unplug any connected devices and stop using any external storage devices that may be affected – including memory cards and those tiny little USB memory keys you use to shuffle files to and from the office. (The latest Microsoft Security Intelligence Report labeled the USB drives as the largest threat to spreading malicious software.) It’s time to call in an expert.
Start by installing, and keeping up to date, a solid anti-virus program. Many computers come pre-loaded with software and free options are available online. If your company has an IT department, they may have a license to use the same at-work solution on your home computer. No matter what software you install: keep it current. An out-of-date virus definition file (a list of the latest bugs and how to clean them) – even by a few weeks – is often worse than none at all (giving you a false sense of security while doing little to stop the latest worms).
Once you’ve checked your system, as well as other computers, laptops, organizers, USB thumb rives, digital camera memory cards, music players, portable hard drives, game systems, and all removable media – it’s time for the gadgets! Scan their internal memories each time you connect ‘em up to transfer files. It will add a few minutes to the process but save you valuable time and headache later.
Finally: Backup. Often. Then... do it again. While it’s possible to backup a virus (copying it to your removable media or burning it alongside family photos on a DVD disc) – you’re getting ahead of me – backing up is an important responsibility. By storing your data in a second or third location, you’re reducing the risk of catastrophic loss once you become infected with a virus. If a virus (or hard drive failure, or notebook theft, or leaving that USB key at the internet café in Prague…) destroys your data – you can restore from a recent backup from before you became infected. I recommend two backups: one onsite and another at a separate location. The type of backup and frequency will vary depending on your situation so again, ask an expert for assistance.
As for those digital photo frames? Bring it home, give it a virus scan, and share your photos proudly – knowing you’re not sharing photos, or worse, with the bad guys.
Listen to Brian Westbrook on Newsradio 750 KXL each Friday at 6:40am and 8:40am as he chats tech on Portland's Morning News. Subscribe to his blog by visiting tech.brianwestbrook.com. Got a question? Want to reprint this article? Email: techexpert (AT) brianwestbrook (DOT) com.