Rhodri Marsden: Is my PC about to experience a catastrophic meltdown?

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The Independent Tech

April Fool's Day provides a perfect opportunity for us to post mediocre gags online in the hope they'll give us scant seconds of internet infamy. "Apple is entering the cosmetics market with its new iShadow and Mac-scara ranges," I might titter from behind my hand, having Photoshopped its logo on to a make-up bag, but forgetting that 200 other unamusing Apple rumours will already be doing the rounds by 11am, thus rendering my effort even more pointless than it was already.

There's nothing funny about the Conficker worm, a malicious piece of software that's been infecting unprotected Windows PCs to create the world's largest botnet – but its creators are probably amused by the panic that's been spread by reports that "meltdown" will occur today, when the worm is merely scheduled to mutate into a potentially more invincible version of itself.

While Conficker is real enough – up to 10 million computers may be infected – no one has any real idea what it might eventually be used for. But this hasn't stopped people glossing over its most likely eventual use (sending spam) and instead using language that suggests that by tomorrow, we'll be subjugated by an army of fearsome robots remote-controlled by some one-eyed criminal mastermind sitting in a reclining leather chair in a bunker in Ukraine. This has led, as one security expert put it, to people having to be "walked down from the ledge" over the past few days.

Clearly there's nothing benign about millions of computers being used for nefarious purposes without their owners' knowledge, but what articles often fail to point out is that if your PC has the worm, well, you can delete it. It's like screaming about the threat of stinging nettles without mentioning dock leaves. Just go to bit.ly/removal and install Microsoft's removal tool. Simple.

Of course, purging Conficker from a few computers doesn't have much of an effect on the botnet itself, and we may all end up being inconvenienced by it whether we've been infected or not. But if it weren't for our incredibly supine attitude towards security, there simply wouldn't be this problem. The alarmist headlines might actually do some good if the text underneath simply advised keeping Windows and antivirus software properly updated, and perhaps for our passwords to be changed to something a little more sophisticated than "mypassword".

Email any technology gripes to cyberclinic@independent.co.uk or join the discussions on the blog at www.independent.co.uk/cyberclinic

Currently under discussion: Is there any way to claw back an email you wish you hadn't sent?