The magazine of the Melbourne PC User Group

Lessons from Typhoid Mary and Broad Street
Michael Mullerworth
mully@melbpc.org.au

No, I'm not writing about Typhoon Betty or Cyclone Tracy. Typhoid Mary was so named because she was identified as the source of many cases of typhoid fever in New York, see http://www.lihistory.com/7/hs702a.htm. She did not suffer the disease herself but was a carrier. In 1907 she was forced to live in isolation for three years before being released on condition that she did not work with food, and reported regularly for observation. But she absconded, and was arrested again in 1915, then confined in a cottage on Long Island till her death in 1938! Pretty unfair treatment, you might say, but there was no way of eradicating the bug from her system at that time!

The origins of Public Health measures as we know them began in the early 19th century. As an example, during a cholera epidemic in London in 1854, Dr. John Snow showed that water, and in one case a particular water pump (on Broad Street), was responsible for disseminating the disease, see http://www.cdc.gov./ncidod/dbmd/snowinfo.htm. By his persuading the authorities to remove the pump handle, the epidemic was controlled.

We can learn a lot from Typhoid Mary and Broad Street about protecting the health of our computers and software.

Contact May Be Innocent - But Hazardous

As part of a group, consuming the same food and water, or manufactured products, one is open to catching others' diseases or sharing their problems. One person can spread infection, even unknowingly, and each subsequent contact spreads it further. The analogy with computer viruses is close; Worms and Trojans that may reside undetected in computers, but constantly and stealthily send themselves to other locations. Or they lie in wait in the files and programs recorded on magnetic disks or CD-ROMs.

Electronic Communication: A Necessity?

Cholera, and typhoid, were spread by indirect contact through water - a flowing medium like electronic communication. Is Internet access a necessity like water? For many it is, for personal reasons. And certainly it is for economic, administrative, governmental and military activity on a global scale. So we are all vulnerable.

Taking It For Granted

We accept the service, be it food, water, or whatever, expect it to always work well and be safe. But we are blithely unaware of, or ignore the possibility that it could be a source of infection, or that we might be infecting others through contact with it. And we might pass it on in other ways, (just like typhoid or cholera could be), but in our case via floppy disks, CD-ROMs, or in Word or Excel documents.

Service Provider's Role

To provide the best possible service. This includes the need for quality monitoring and preventive measures (cf. water purification and fluoridation, food handling regulations), and providing necessary and helpful information to users. Currently Melb PC is running a trial program (AvMailgate) scanning for viruses, all e-mail going through the server, and it has been the cause of some controversy. You will receive e-mail notification if a virus originating from your computer has been identified, and the message you sent will not be delivered.

User Responsibilities

To co-operate with the Provider, accept and follow the rules for the benefit of all users. For example, to boil water if contamination is suspected (as in Sydney, 1999), or to wash hands before handling food. If you are informed that you have sent a virus, you will be expected to prevent it spreading further. You may be contacted by a Melb PC volunteer to assist you in cleaning it out. Avoid resentment, and tolerate some inconvenience to help solve the problem. Prompt action may also save your computer and programs from potential damage.

Safe Computing - Like Safe Sex

When applying these lessons to computer usage, we need to remember:
  • Be informed about the How and Why (knowledge is power-and understanding)
  • Be vigilant and consistent (the price of security is eternal vigilance)
  • DO NOT BE lazy, forgetful or blas‚ (it won't happen to me!)
  • The problem of virus infection is a global one
  • However, local measures are necessary at both ISP and User level
What do you do when a virus is discovered? 

This is the topic of another article.

Reprinted from the May 2002 issue of PC Update, the magazine of Melbourne PC User Group, Australia

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