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On Computers

Be cautious, but don't be scared —

When I sat down at my PC to begin this column, the first — thing I noticed was a new message from Microsoft's anti-spyware program. — While I was gone, it had spent 19 minutes scanning 1,899 memory processes, — 48,627 files on my hard drive and 8,442 keys in my Windows registry.

Spyware threats detected: zero.

Then, as usual, I checked the log of my Norton Antivirus — program. It hadn't found anything worthy of suspicion. Next came ZoneAlarm, — the firewall that protects my computer from real-time Internet burglars. — Nothing more than the usual snoopers.

For me this has become a routine, just another sign that — we live in an age of digital anxiety - which might be entirely justified — and might not.

The news certainly looks bad enough. Late last week, security — researchers announced the first mass-distributed virus had turned up in — U.S. cell phones. Known as Cabir, it spreads through the short-range, — Bluetooth wireless system that the industry devised as an easy way to — connect computers, printers, cell phones and other gadgets. It's easy, — all right.

This virus doesn't do much damage: Mainly it runs down — cell phone batteries in a ceaseless search for other Bluetooth-enabled — cell phones. But the next one might not be so benign - and we know for — sure now that virus writers have an additional 1.5 billion targets. That's — how many people carry cell phones worldwide.

A few days after the Bluetooth scare, the FBI warned that — hackers were distributing a virus masquerading as e-mail from the agency — itself. Bearing an fbi.gov address, the message warns recipients that — they've visited an illegal Web site and orders them to open an attachment — containing a list of questions. When they comply, they get something worse — than the third degree from an electronic G-man - they get a virus.

That, by the way, was the day after the hacked contents — of Paris Hilton's mobile phone address book were posted on the Web. It — was great grist for the gossip column snicker mill, but not much fun for — the folks in her address book - famous and not so - who were bombarded — by prank phone calls and e-mail.

It's certainly not much fun for other customers of T-Mobile, — the cell phone provider that pays Ms. Hilton to promote its products. — It turned out, coincidentally, that someone had hacked T-Mobile's servers — and made off with the personal information from at least 400 accounts.

OK, I get paid to pay attention to this kind of thing. — Is the online world really that dangerous? Or has my addiction to tech — headlines made me paranoid?

Some people would undoubtedly vote for the loony bin. — One of them is Larry Seltzer, author of PC Magazine's online Security — Watch column. In an article entitled "Five Years after the End of the — World" that appeared in the latest print version, he notes that January — — marked the fifth anniversary of Y2K - the disaster that never was.

For those who missed this milestone, Y2K is an abbreviation — for Jan. 1, 2000, the day the world's computer systems were supposed to — crash. That's because a generation of lazy programmers had used only two — digits to record the year in all the arithmetic that calculated dates. — When the clock ticked over to 2000, all those computers would think it — was 1900 - and millions of them would go bananas. Banks would fail, the — power would go out, planes would crash.

Such was the prediction from the doomsayers, and I admit — that I joined the chorus - in more measured tones, of course.

The Y2K disasters never happened - a least not on any — measurable scale. But Seltzer argues that today's headlines about viruses, — worms, spyware, trojan horses, phishing scams, identity thefts and other — evil artifacts of the online age promote much the same hysteria as publicity — over Y2K.

He and others are worried that too many people will buy — into this gloom and doom and abandon or seriously curtail online activities — which, for the most part, have improved all our lives.

His take on Y2K history: "Don't believe everything the — experts tell you, and be especially skeptical of worst-case predictions — for technology."

That's good advice, but as judges say, I concur in part — and dissent in part. One reason Y2K wasn't a disaster was that programmers — and equipment took the warnings seriously - if a bit belatedly - and worked — furiously to fix their systems before the new millennium.

If the information technology folks at The Baltimore Sun — hadn't spent man-years working on Y2K, we would simply have stopped publishing. — Ask any technology officer from any business, government or educational — institution who was around at the time. They'll tell you the same thing.

On the other hand, before you buy into hysteria over any — batch of bad news, take a deep breath and look into the details.

For example, the new cell phone virus only affects only — the latest generation of so-called SmartPhones that run the Symbian and — Windows Mobile operating systems. To spread from one phone to another — wirelessly, both phones have to have Bluetooth capability, and they have — to pass within 15 to 20 feet of one another.

Hardly the recipe for mass infection, and if you do have — a potentially vulnerable Bluetooth phone, you can eliminate it by turning — off the broadcast function it uses to advertise its presence to others.

The FBI virus? That should be a bad joke by now. The only — thing that makes it different from hundreds of others is its faked FBI — source address. Which is hardly believable - the agency communicates with — suspects by sending a couple of serious guys with gray suits and crew — cuts - not sending e-mail. This spoof was just another message with an — attachment from a stranger. No one should ever open one of those attachments.

And poor Paris (now there's an oxymoron). It turned out — her phone itself, or her online account, probably was hacked by someone — who knew her password, or guessed it because it was too easy to figure — out.

Almost all of these horror stories illustrate very minor — risks for anyone who takes even the most elementary precautions - such — as guarding a password or ignoring e-mail attachments. And those threats — that couldn't be anticipated are relatively easy to address.

So don't hide under a chair - just make sure you're online — safely. Update your virus checker, use a firewall, and don't click on — anything in an e-mail or pop-up ad if you don't know where it came from.

And if you're looking for 5-year-old cans of baked beans — and SpaghettiO's, I still have a few in my basement. Never can tell when — that Y2K stash will come in handy.