iPods and viruses


Q: My iPod nano has gotten infected by a virus. How do I clean it?

– Vinay

A: To be clear, a traditional click-wheel iPod model cannot really be “infected” by a virus, since a computer virus needs to be executed to cause problems or infect a device, and the iPod does not actually run software—it merely stores data.

Further, keep in mind that just because your iPod is not working properly or is demonstrating unusual behaviour does not indicate the presence of a virus. There are many other circumstances related to the iPod hardware itself, the iPod firmware version, or even software-related problems that can cause your iPod to misbehave. With some of the older iPod models, simply disconnecting your iPod before iTunes had finished syncing could easily cause software-related problems with your iPod.

That having been said, traditional iPod models such as the iPod nano appear to your computer as external storage devices, and therefore can certainly be corrupted by a virus that your computer has been infected with in the same way as any other external hard drive or flash memory device. In this case, a virus that is on your computer may damage or erase files on the iPod, resulting in content going missing or other odd behaviour. The virus may even make a copy of itself on your iPod, but the fact is that once it’s there it becomes an inert file that cannot do any further damage unless you try to open it again from your actual computer, as the iPod cannot run a virus application any more than it can run a word processing application.

The only possible way in which your computer could be automatically re-infected by connecting your iPod is if the virus has set itself up in such a way that it triggers Windows AutoPlay—a feature in Windows itself that looks for certain files on a CD/DVD discs and external storage devices and auto-executes those files when that disc/device is inserted into the computer. Under legitimate circumstances, this feature is normally used to automatically trigger a software installation, but can obviously just as easily trigger a virus. As long as you’ve cleaned your computer of infection, however, any recent up-to-date anti-virus application should be able to catch this as soon as you connect your iPod. Alternatively, simply disabling the AutoPlay feature in Windows is an even safer method of preventing this problem, since in this case Windows won’t automatically try to run any files on CD/DVD media or external USB devices. There are dozens of Windows system utilities that allow you to disable this feature, but Microsoft’s own TweakUI tool, found in Microsoft PowerToys for Windows XP is at least one good (and free) option for this.

As for cleaning up the iPod itself, regardless of whether there is actual viral code on your iPod or just corruption as the result of a virus on your computer the procedure is the same: Once you’re sure you’ve cleaned the virus from your computer and you have an up-to-date AV software running, then simply connect it to iTunes and perform a “Restore” operation on it by clicking the Restore button on the iPod “Summary” tab in iTunes. This will erase everything on your iPod (so make sure you have your music backed up somewhere else if it’s not already in your iTunes library), and return it back to its original factory settings, at which point you can just reload it from iTunes.

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Jesse Hollington

Jesse Hollington was a Senior Editor at iLounge. He's written about Apple technology for nearly a decade and had been covering the industry since the early days of iLounge. In his role at iLounge, he provided daily news coverage, wrote and edited features and reviews, and was responsible for the overall quality of the site's content.