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PC security paranoia vs reality

Ed Bott wonders just How prevalent is malware on Windows PCs?. To listen to how people talk, you’d think malware on PC’s was endemic and on nearly every machine. The facts are a bit different.

If you’ve been following the mainstream press recently, you might have read an alarming statistic: “Nearly half of personal computers in the U.S. are compromised by malware.”

That statement is an outright fabrication. It is not true. It is not even remotely accurate, based on objective data. The actual number varies, depending on where you are in the world, but for Windows users who have automatic updates turned on, the worldwide average is somewhere between 1% and 2%. In my opinion, if you practice the basics of online security, the likelihood that your Windows PC is infected by malware is a tiny fraction of 1%.

It is worth keeping in mind that just a percent or two of Windows systems still adds up to a very large number of machines. But still, why the discrepancy between reality and perception? Ed traces it to a study report done for a company that sells anti-malware software that was picked up and repeated ad nauseum by various media outlets because it fitted the way they wanted things to be. There are better data.

Another recent story was about the FBI response to remotely controlled malicious software on consumer PC’s. The enforcement has changed from just going after the perpetrators to actually taking over the servers that is used to control this software. That way, enforcement can determine which PC’s have active malware and can instruct that malware to stop and tell the ISP for the PC owner which customers in its network may need help cleaning their systems.

A key for the user is to keep the system software up to date and to take appropriate precautions when using the I’net. For Windows, Microsoft has made this fairly easy with security software and methods now included Windows.

FUD mongering – spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt – seems almost endemic these days. Whether it is infected PC’s or ID theft, a common thread is that of taking advantage of people’s trepidation with something new, especially something as charismatic as computing technology appears to be in modern society. Getting a realistic grip of odds and risks is difficult and requires actually learning something. That gives the rest of us something to do, I guess.

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