Even Offline Computers Are Vulnerable To Viruses

Is it possible to have a truly offline computer? As I described in my recent column in the Northwest Herald, the short answer is no. Even if you don’t need the Internet, your computer does. You can still be infected by viruses even if you’re not online. In fact, your computer will turn into a silent hotbed of virus activity just waiting for the opportunity to infect others. The older the computer, the worse the problem.

The article isn’t available online, so I’ll give you the gist of it:

Pretend you have a Windows 2000 computer that never goes on the Internet. Using it is like traveling through time, ten years into the past. There are plenty of old friends installed: Microsoft Office 2000, Acrobat 5, Internet Explorer 6, programs that were standards at the time but have long since been replaced with newer versions.

You might think you could continue to use this computer in isolation, maybe for basic word processing. It doesn’t matter as long as it doesn’t connect to anything, right?

But, let’s pretend your printer dies. No point in word processing if you can’t print. The new printer says that it’s not really Windows 2000 compatible, but you might be able to find some software on the Internet. You try to log on but poor Internet Explorer 6 can’t handle a modern web site. And, behind the scenes, a virus just snuck through holes in IE6 to infect your computer.

Unaware of the virus, you decide to use your Windows 7 laptop to download the printer software to a USB flash drive. Another virus hitches a ride from the laptop to the desktop, a virus that can’t run under Windows 7 but is more than happy to infect Windows 2000. The Windows 2000 computer is now a hotbed of virus activity, and the only symptom is that it’s increasingly slower.

Other viruses join the party, and pretty soon that Windows 2000 computer is spewing all sorts of junk that infects your Windows 7 laptop, your smartphone, your iPad… then your email and Facebook accounts get hijacked and suddenly your bank is calling about missing funds.

I’ve received a few responses from folks with older computers, disagreeing with my opinion. Most of the responses included the observation: “I’ve been running this version of Windows for umpteen years and I’ve never had a virus.” If I may add… that you know of.

In fairness to these folks, yes, I do know people who use Windows 98 or Windows 2000 without the world grinding to an earth-shattering halt. Most of them are retirees or others who don’t use their computers often. In such cases we try to keep the computer functional for as long as we can. But there are others who – in my opinion – are doing absolutely lunatic things with ancient computers. Like trying to run a business with them: payroll, marketing, the works. And that gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies because there are SO many ways it can go disastrously wrong for both you and your business.

Most viruses and malware show absolutely no signs of their presence. It doesn’t matter if a Win98 or Win2000 computer has antivirus installed or not, because any antivirus capable of running under those versions of Windows is incapable of detecting new threats. It’s like taking a police officer from 1912, dropping him into 2012, and expecting him to cope with modern problems for which he has no frame of reference.

Friends, I’m saying these things to help, not to hinder. I think one reason many people are reluctant to change is because it truly is difficult to get used to a computer with a different interface. Like when we moved from DOS to Windows 95, or Windows XP to Windows Vista and 7. A new interface puts us on edge, even old salts like me. It’s annoying to spend half your morning trying to figure out how you used to do something, but that’s technology, and the only thing you can do is adapt.

You may find it easier if you keep in mind that computers haven’t really changed all that much since the 1980s. Saving a file, typing a document, finding a contact’s address, these things are still the same. It’s the look-and-feel of the computer that has changed, plus the ability to access more information faster. Even the Internet is pretty close to what it was when I started using it twenty years ago. Today I’m using RSS feeds and Facebook chat instead of Usenet news and UNIX talk, but the fundamentals remain.

What do you think? Is there life to be had in old computers, or are the security risks too great?



  1. Deneane Bradtke says:

    Hi, Triona,

    Great article. thanks.

    In addition to the annoyance of learning a new interface is the expense of buying and annoyance of installing and learning new versions of an entire array of complex programming.

    One question that comes to mind; why do programmers feel compelled to make the new intrface so different? For example, remember the Windows ’95 tree? It made it very easy to access or re-arrange your existing filess and folders. I still miss the efficiency of organization it provided.

  2. It’s less the programmers’ decision and more the marketing department. Sometimes the decisions about which features get the ax seems pretty arbitrary. Conversely, new features get added which no one will ever use. But, the nice thing about computers is that you can customize them any way you want. If you’re referring to File Manager, which for ages was THE way to navigate files in Windows, there are shareware programs that mimic it in Windows XP and 7, or you can alter Windows’ view settings to achieve an approximation.

  3. You are correct that if a computer is linked to the internet or network where other are connected to the internet and the internet is not used a computer can still get a virus. However, I want to know if a computer that is not connected to the internet or a network and has no external devices from other computers used can get viruses?

  4. Yes, it can – because these days you can’t guarantee a computer will *never* speak to another computer or data device in some way. One little flash drive in the USB port, or digital camera, or iPhone, and it’s over. Rather than take that chance you are much better off protecting the computer from threats even if you think it won’t be exposed to them. And yes, that may mean an upgrade. It simply isn’t a good idea to run a version of Windows older than XP for just that reason – they don’t make antivirus programs for them anymore. And, thanks to Windows 8, XP’s days are numbered as well.

  5. Jordan Weaver says:

    I don’t know if you remember MSAV (Microsoft Anti-Virus) came with versions of MS-Dos 6.22. Most old times computer users knew that viruses existed before online or were using online machines even though some rare few did have machines online in the 80’s.

    If you don’t use it for printing you could boot up an old 286 with A word processor and never have to worry with MS-Dos 6.22 on a clean install. Say you don’t need to do anything with it but just store it. Its a simple solution but the older the machine the more you risk a drive crashing but chances are you could back up to an old floppy disk and back on to another old hard drive you buy off ebay that may or may not work for a long time, that or you find some old shops around town that might have it in a bin in the back type stuff. There’s lots of ways to make an offline computer much safer than an online one and a perfect way to store your private documents that will never risk being hacked as long as you don’t communicate with any other computers you won’t risk a virus.

  6. That’s the problem, in my opinion – “as long as you don’t communicate with any other computers.” It takes a great deal of care to run a truly offline computer that has no chance of infection. You have to watch not only network connections but USB drives, music players, smartphones. Anything that connects is a potential vector for infection. I also have doubts about trusting ancient hardware, especially for real-time business purposes. If you want to play with it sure, but I wouldn’t trust live data to it. That being said, I would much rather computers be re-used than relegated to the ever-increasing pile of e-waste. The difficulty, as always, is balancing security and usability.

    (Good old MSAV. Saved many a computer, back in the day.)

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