Whether they know it or not, Yukoners are engaged in a cyber war.
Our computers, along with internet users in the NWT, Nunavut and northern BC are constantly being attacked.
They’re being hit by hackers looking to hijack our hard drives to send spam — unsolicited advertising e-mails — to southern computers.
Computers are being hijacked by spambots, computer programs that invade your system and send spam without you knowing it.
The resulting spam can force southern internet networks to block e-mails and file transfers from northern domains.
This can cost individuals and business time and money, and hinder communication with clients.
It’s a growing problem in the North and around the world, says Stuart Dawson, senior implementation manager for information systems at Northwestel, a company that provides internet services to northern Canada.
“I come in at 7 a.m. and typically spend the first two to three hours of my day looking for (e-mail) patterns that are suspicious,” said Dawson in an interview this week.
“I’d say it’s about 30 per cent of my job doing that.”
It’s a lot of work.
Last year alone, Dawson and the company’s cyber defences had to protect Yukoners’ and their northern neighbours’ computers from millions of unsolicited e-mails — 203,404,522 according to the company’s records.
Contrast that to the 27,274,125 mostly legitimate electronic messages we received.
But scanning goes both ways.
Northwestel also blocked a number of e-mails leaving the Yukon/NWT/Nunavut/northern BC service area as well.
In the last year, there were 838,946 spams sent from computers using, or claiming to use, Northwestel as a service provider.
Those are just the ones that were caught.
Some spams made their way through the nets in the 3.1 million “legitimate” e-mails that were sent from the 79,000 access points — places to connect to the internet — Northwestel provides for the roughly 110,000 residents of northern Canada.
Most of this happens without the knowledge of the average computer user, said Dawson.
So, what the company does is scan the network for “unusual” e-mail activity.
If you normally send five e-mails a day, and suddenly your computer sends 5,000, your account is flagged and you’ll get a call from the company.
They also, in line with your terms of service, occasionally check the subject line of sent messages and on “rare” occasions have to read your mail, said Dawson.
You’re not shut down right away, like some companies do down South, you’re just told about it and asked to take care of it.
And it’s important that you do because some systems, such as Yahoo and MSN, have occasionally identified Northwestel e-mails as a problem, marked them as junk or bounced them back.
The whole spam-protection process costs Northwestel a lot of time and money, said Anne Kennedy, director of corporate communications for the company.
“It’s like guerilla warfare,” said Kennedy.
“We keep having to increase resources. We have to stay ahead of them all of the time, they’re always trying to outsmart us and figure out different ways to get in.
“From a business perspective it has a tremendous impact on us just trying to keep up.”
It’s important to keep up from a personal perspective as well, said Rick Steele of the Yukon Technology Innovation Centre.
People who don’t protect their computers with updated anti-virus software risk annoying pop up ads, having your e-mail address sold to other spammers, getting a Trojan horse, a virus that makes your computer the slave of another, and, in some cases, identity theft.
That’s a risk for both you and your neighbour because your computer’s infection can spread through infected e-mails you send, he said.
“There’s no reason to be unprotected out there.
“It isn’t just about your computer, it’s what your computer can do to others.”
The best way to protect yourself is to get antivirus software and update it, avoid opening suspicious e-mails and watch your downloads.
Some software, like Norton, costs money, while others like Avast is free, he added.
But, once you’re updated, it still pays to be prudent because like the technology, the risks are changing, said Steele.
“It used to be that you’d have to go to the dark side of the internet to get viral infections and Trojan horses on to your computer, pornography and hackers’ sites.
“You don’t have to do that anymore. You can be a perfectly innocent user going to a sports webpage that has been captured and exploited by hackers.”
The problem is likely to continue for a while because as western countries start to legislate against the problem, spammers just move elsewhere, said Steele.
“All they have to do is move it off to