Digital Cameras: the new floppy disks.

The humble digital camera has replaced the even more humble floppy disk.  As a roving nerd, there’s seldom a holiday or a trip away where I’m not carrying a laptop computer.  As a result, eventually I’ll be asked to burn photos a friend or family member has taken onto a CD for them.  On more than one occasion, plugging in the camera has revealed a virus infection on the memory card. 

In this respect, the camera (or more correctly the memory card) is a perfect carrier – much like the floppy disk was throughout the early 90s.  The virus lies dormant, unable to fulfill whatever purpose its maker had intended for it.  I have seen criticisms that virus scanners are ineffective placebos and not to be trusted as a safe way of dealing with this threat. 

“The blacklist approach used by anti-virus vendors simply doesn’t scale to today’s threat environment. Blacklists are never particularly effective. But it’s getting to the point where the illusion of protection afforded by a traditional anti-virus solution is worse than no protection at all” 

The knockers have a fair point.  It’s true enough that “black-listing” means the vendors of such anti-virus software will always have to play “catch-up”.  It may also be true that this provides a greater feeling of security for the user than is scientifically justifiable. 

I’m going to pursue a line of logic that may well be flawed, but (for the most part) is fairly straight forward and can be thought of as “most likely”

  • I am using an up to date anti-virus product that has been labelled “ineffective”, but have found infections on people’s cameras.
  • The camera will most likely have become infected when they were connected to their home PC.
  • These people are unaware that they have a virus on their camera.
  • If they’re unaware that the virus is on the camera, they’ll most likely be unaware that their PC has a virus.

From this, I can only conclude that these people are most likely not to have an up to date virus scanner on their PC.  A lot of hardware vendors supply a one year subscription for some anti-virus software. – “Buy a computer, get 12 months free virus protection”.  I am not aware of the business model used by anti-virus vendors, but it seems likely that the software image provided on a new computer was purchased at a heavily subsidised (if not free) rate by the hardware supplier. 

To the anti-virus software vendors this must be equivalent to low-cost advertising:  It promotes their brand-name and due to the subscription nature of the software ensures a fairly good return on investment.  Figures on software piracy tend to be dubious.  However, personal experience tells me that there seems to be a trend in some home users that means they expect something for nothing.   They paid for the computer, they shouldn’t have to pay for the software.  As someone who earns their living by writing commercial software, it is not an attitude I can condone.  But alas, I digress. 

At the end of their “free anti-virus” subscription period, uninformed users are faced with seemingly two choices:

  1. Pay up.  They get to keep up to date, by parting with their hard earned money.
  2. Put up.  They’ve got anti-virus software that’s current at the time.  Surely that will be good enough?  Surely these pesky virus things aren’t created every day?

Here in-lies the problem.  The user feels safe as they have some anti-virus software, but their computer becomes an ever greater risk, as time goes by.  And time moves quickly in computing!

Of course there are other options to running out-of-date virus scannersFor home users there are free solutions.  Are they as good as ones that you pay for?  Various tests have been conducted and I would encourage you to read some for yourself.  One thing you are unlikely to see are comparisons between up-to date free virus scanners and out of date commercial scanners.  But, it seems a fairly logical step to assume that sooner or later an up-to date scanner is going to have a more comprehensive black-list than an out of date scanner does.  This means for the average home-user the free alternatives are a better option than an out of date scanner.  So, next time you spot a digital camera with a virus, pass the message on!