Skip to main content

Policing the information age

Computer virus

The growth of viruses : muck spreading

There are many high-profile virus programmes that have silently attacked computers undetected, but wiping out all the data on a hard drive isn't all that can happen.

Some viruses attack more devastatingly by corrupting data subtly, perhaps altering crucial financial data, which damages a company's ability to trade. Other viruses can ruin personal or company reputations by posting private documents on open newsgroups.

A computer virus spreads by making copies of itself, normally without the knowledge of the user, and often contains a malicious 'payload' that can cause irreparable damage to the computer.

These 'malware' programs can hide in floppy disks, CDs, images, other computer programs or in contaminated data on the Internet. However, they are often spread by emailing themselves to the addresses they find on a personal email system. Just how devasting a virus attack can be on an email system was highlighted in 1999 when the infamous Melissa virus forced Microsoft and a number of other very large companies to completely turn off their email systems until the 'infection' was removed. Nearly all viruses can be stopped by installing anti-virus software on a PC and keeping it updated at least once a fortnight.

Whispering Wires' theatre programme

International wire-tapping : who's reading your e-mails?

One of the key concerns holding back the growth of online trading is confidence in how secure financial transactions are. The perceived vulnerability of e-mail and other Internet traffic to eavesdropping raises severe concerns about the security of financial transactions. News stories of blunders that allowed online users to read other people's bank details have caused widespread alarm.

But the worries aren't just with financial data. Electronic eavesdropping (interception of e-mails, tampering with their contents and monitoring of voice calls) is another concern, as is the ability of criminals to block communications, for instance to sabotage alarm systems before burgling a warehouse.

There are reports that governments monitor all forms of electronic communication surreptitiously, not just to combat terrorist threats but also to gain commercial intelligence for their countries. The number of official wiretaps and intercepts carried out by governments is also growing.

fun and games

Can you beat our games? Explode equipment to see what's inside, hear the changing sounds of telecommunications, see how telecommunications designs have changed over time or send an e-postacard.

what's on

The UK's first permanent gallery dedicated to the history of information and communication technologies opens in the new Information Age gallery at London’s Science Museum.

audio history

Take a trip down memory lane with extracts of the interviews which have been recorded as part of the Connected Earth oral history programme.

featured story

100 years of automatic switching!
In 1912 the GPO installed Britain's first automatic telephone exchange in Epsom.

Discover the early days of the telephone...