[Babylon 5]

Nathan Mates' Christian Pages

Be an Internet Berean

By Nathan Mates

Author's note: this writing is going to be very short on theology, and very long on computer & internet advice. Stop reading now if you were expecting otherwise.

Despite its reputation as being a cesspool of immorality, sin, and wickedness, more and more Christians are using the internet. Now this is not necessarily a bad thing: I feel that the internet is merely a tool that isn't biased towards either good or evil. Rather, like a printing press or the post office, it is what you do with it that tilts it towards good or evil.

So, with mundane tasks like email and web browsing, Christians are using the internet for all sorts of reasons. However, in the process, there are many who seem to regard anything and everything they read as trustworthy, and worthy to be passed on. Since first being exposed to the internet in the fall of 1992, I've long lost count of all the hoaxes, forgeries, and fakes passed on, with good intentions.

However, as Christians, we are not merely have good intentions; God has given us brains, and expects us to use them. As the title of this writing suggests, there is some biblical basis for what I'm recommending here: "Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true." [Acts 17:11]

What these Bereans are commended for, to all eternity, is two things: (1) their openness to the gospel, and (2) their desire to verify the new ideas against the truth. An imbalance in these two characteristics can lead to serious problems. A mind that is open to everything, and doesn't reject anything is the equivalent of a sewer. There's no shortage of false and misleading teachings around, and being polluted by every idea that comes your way is not good. On the other hand, if you are too critical about new ideas, and reject them all, then one is not teachable.

So, we need a balance between accepting everything, and accepting nothing. How does this apply to us on the internet? Those that are too open about what they accept and pass on have been bitten by too many false ideas. There are several categories this can happen in: (hoax) virus warnings, chain letters, and attachments. In all three of them, we need to exercise proper discernment about them.

Home computers (especially those running MS operating systems) have been vulnerable to computer viruses, trojans, and the like since people started sharing disks regularly. While viruses can be a fairly serious problem, owning the latest virus scanning software, not pirating software (copying commercial software that the maker has said should be sold in stores), and staying away from email attachments (see below) can protect you quite well.

As viruses have been relatively well protected against (see above), and they are relatively well known to the the public as a bad thing, a new form of virus has arisen: the virus hoax. Instead of a real virus, that damages computers, the hoax lives in email, and is passed on like a bad cold by people. These hoaxes tend to prey on the good intentions we have as Christians. The following is a sample of a virus hoax:

--- copy text of virus HOAX

[HOAX] There is a new virus going around in the last couple of days!!!
[HOAX] DO NOT open or even look at any mail that you get that says:
[HOAX] "Returned or Unable to Deliver" This virus will attach itself
[HOAX] to your computer components and render them
[HOAX] useless. Immediately delete any mail items that says this. AOL
[HOAX] has said this is a very dangerous virus, and there is NO remedy
[HOAX] for it at this time, Please Be Careful, And forward to all your
[HOAX] on-line friends A.S.A.P.
--- end copy text of virus HOAX

[Quoted from Symantec Antivirus's info site as a hoax, see http://www.symantec.com/avcenter/venc/data/retorunable.html I added the [HOAX] tag to the start of each line so that hopefully nobody will be bitten by reading the above.]

Note that this message contains several traits common to hoaxes: (1) promise of danger (wiping out your system is the most common), (2) demand to send this immediately, and (3) comments encouraging you to do so without thinking. While the first claim (danger) may seem hard to verify, the other two should trip up one's Berean antennas.

When reading virus warnings emails, this question should be foremost in your mind: If this warning is indeed true, will it be any less true in the time it takes to verify that it is true before I send it to anyone?

That question's answer is obviously "No." Further, if there is a virus going around that is as dangerous as the above makes it sound, the media would be jumping on the story and promoting it. Truthful warnings don't need any promotion, but falsehood relies on the unsuspecting to promote it. Anything that demands immediate attention online is almost certainly up to no good. Personally, once I see such a thing, I'm reaching for the delete message key. However, if you're looking at passing it on, you should be an internet Berean and verify if something is true before sending it on.

Another question to ask when reading such emails is this: what evidence is presented? In the above article, there's none. All of its claims are self-contained. Even though the name of a well-known computer company is presented ("AOL" -- I've also seen Intel and Microsoft quoted as experts on viruses), there is no concrete proof. If there's any truth to a message, it must be backed up. This email has nothing to substantiate its claims, which is another strike against it.

I've also seen emails saying "This was reported on CNN (or site XYZ), so it must be true." Dropping the names of companies and media is designed to satisfy the semi-Bereans who are too lazy to actually check out the facts. However, our answer to that should be this: "If it was on CNN, tell me exactly when and where it was reported so we can verify it." The Bereans searched the scriptures, and we should do the same when presented with references.

While we may have our Bible commentaries, Bible dictionaries, and pastors to bug with theological questions and problems, where do we turn to learn about viruses? The answer is simple: those who have the most experience in dealing with them. In case you don't know who deals with them, bookmark one or both of these links: http://www.symantec.com/avcenter/hoax.html and http://vil.mcafee.com/hoax.asp? . These are the websites of two of the major virus scanning programs I've used over the years. [Others exist, and almost certainly have their own websites, but I haven't looked at them.] These companies are in the business of selling anti-virus programs, and so it's in their best interests to identify real viruses and fix them. Therefore, if they're saying that something is not to be worried at, then it's pretty safe.

I like Symantec's site above move, as it allows one to search their entire encyclopedia (of both real viruses and hoaxes) for some words found in a body of a suspicious message. Searching for "returned" found the above email as a listed hoax. If you've determined that something is a hoax, you should be replying to the sender (and everyone they cc'd) that they've been bitten by the hoax. Include information like the URL (line starting with "http", like I've done several times in this email) proving it to be a hoax. If you want to, feel free to copy this "Be an Internet Berean" writing to educate the senders.

[And, as a side note, in that hoax email above, that subject line of "returned or unable to deliver" is the standard subject found on messages that couldn't be delivered. This subject is quite legitimate, and generated when an email address has been misspelled, the email address is no longer valid (and no forwarding address left), or generic computer faults that prevented delivery. Shame on the hoaxers who've tried to pervert a normal, truthful message subject, and make people delete messages before they realize that their messages weren't delivered.]

Next in the line of things we need to be intelligent about are chain letters. These are a close cousin of virus warnings, but instead of using fear, most chain letters promise something good. Chain letters (in general) were around before there were virus hoaxes, but have fallen off in popularity the last few years. Messages like "Make Money Fast" (aka 'MMF', though since renamed, as people wised up) were popular a decade ago. MMF is an example of the classic (and quite illegal) pyramid scheme: send a small amount of money to 5-10 people listed, put your name at the bottom of the list (deleting one entry), and pass it on. This is a pyramid scheme designed to benefit the originators, and nobody else, and has been quite illegal for years.

Other chain letters promise other rewards. I've seen some saying that the more a message is passed on, some big company (usually Microsoft or AOL) will fund some charitable cause. Once again, we should demand proof before buying into it. And, these emails almost never have a single shred of external evidence to substantiate their claims. [Because those claims are all false!] Also, there is no way for companies to track email forwarding that only refers to them-- that'd be a major online privacy violation that would upset everyone.

Some other chain letters are only for things like "Send a hug to all your friends today." While these don't quite have any evidence to validate in them, each time they are forwarded, another layer of cruft is added to the message. Further, mass mailings of messages can overload email systems. For these reasons, chain letters are classified as discouraged to banned. I personally will not send on any chain letters I receive, and I strongly encourage people to do the same.

Finally, as we are on the internet, the last major area to be careful with is attachments. Email was not designed to transfer files around, but people have added in this "feature" without thinking as to whether it should be used or not. I am opposed to email attachments on several technical reasons: (1) attachments add 25-40% to the size of what they're transferring (2) attachments are forcibly bundled in with messages, and force people to download them. Finally, on a non-technical level, (3) people aren't being Bereans, and sending around files that they shouldn't.

Almost all virus scanning software (and the major media) repeat this warning: don't open attachments from people you don't know, and also people you do know, but weren't expecting. Why? Because attachments can typically carry anything to your system-- including rather real viruses like the "Melissa" or "I Love You." But, large virus outbreaks (like the two above) have been caused by people mindlessly opening attachments. Yes, the attachment isn't technically at fault, but people do need to be far better educated (notice a theme running through this writing yet? :) before they can be really used safely.

The most dangerous attachments are those that are programs. [Those typically end with '.exe' or '.vbs', but Microsoft stupidly decided to hide that information by default, so you can't watch out for that unless you're really paying attention.] Programs can easily have viruses embedded in them, or trojan horses that not every virus scanner can detect. Trojan Horses, like the original, claim to be one thing, but behind your back, they can do things like allow the authors access every file on your system or every keystroke (like passwords, etc). As viruses can be added at any stage along the way like sexually transmitted diseases, if you run one program sent along, you are, in effect, running every virus/trojan that exists on every computer that ever forwarded it. As Christians, we're not to sleep around, and I encourage you to not let your computer "sleep around" either, for safety reasons.

Some would use attachments to send photos of various family events. For reasons #1 and #2 above, this is about the worst way to send things. It's highly impolite to force others (who may be on slow net connections) to wait 5 minutes to download your picture, when they've got more important things they need to be working on. The World Wide Web was designed just for this purpose: efficient transfer of files, but without forcing people to download things. There are many places that'll host files on the web for free (www.geocities.com, www.tripod.com, to name just a few), and all you have to do is send around the URL (link) to the picture.

URLs start with "http", and are just a single line of text. For example, a picture of one of my cats is at http://www.matesfamily.org/cats/stanley1.jpg . With that URL, people can view that picture when and where they like; they weren't forced to download the entire picture (about 50 seconds of waiting on a 28.8 modem) before they could read this message. Don't give in to the "convenience" of attachments; be a blessing to the recipient, and use a method designed to transfer data (not program) files.

There are many more scams, schemes, and things to watch out for on the internet that haven't been touched on here. But, hopefully, what's been written here, will encourage you to think before passing on any messages, to research claims made, and to reject things that are neither truthful nor safe.

See more Christian writings by Nathan Mates at http://www.matesfamily.org/xtian/index.html