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Does Your Computer Have a Virus? : Experts Debate Whether Electronic Attacks Are Urban Mythology or Threat to Security

January 31, 1988|NIKKI FINKE | Times Staff Writer

The computer virus.

It's not the latest version of the Asian flu or something you can catch from your keyboard.

Instead, it's a parasitic program that can damage your data.

By some accounts, computer viruses are insidious destroyers that act much like biological viruses, invading home and business computers and crippling data networks before the victim even knows it's there. At the very least, this view goes, they are a threat to every American with a PC; at worst they are a potential danger to national security.

By other accounts, computer viruses are just another urban legend, a relatively rare phenomenon blown far out of proportion by alarmists and by society's deeply ingrained mistrust of technology. "Every two years, we go through this period of virus hysteria," counsels Don Watkins of Petaluma, Calif., who is director for CompuServe IBM Net, an international network for IBM computer users. "We seem to get all wrapped up and concerned about this."

Still, concern about the viruses is rising worldwide. More documented cases of viral "attacks" on computer systems came to light last year than at any time since viruses were first identified at USC in 1983. In March, leading computer security experts from around the world will meet in Paris to discuss the problem at a private conference known as "Securicom '88."

A Significant Threat?

But where the experts part company is over the question of how widespread computer viruses are and whether they threaten the worldwide computer networks or even the average PC user who balances his checkbook on an Apple Mac.

"I personally view it as like walking across the street," Watkins said. "Certainly, you don't walk across the street without looking for a car, but you also don't spend the rest of your life worrying about crossing the street, either."

But Fred Cohen, the University of Cincinnati professor who is credited with inventing the first computer virus in a controlled experiment as a USC graduate student, said he's seen whole computer networks disabled by viruses. "It's like germ warfare," he warned.

Most recently, a seemingly innocuous program that displayed a Christmas tree and message was "widely distributed" through IBM's electronic mail network on Dec. 11, according to IBM spokeswoman Linda Nardin.

But underlying it all was a virus designed to rifle through each recipient's personal files in search of automatic routing lists. "If someone executed the file by typing the word 'Christmas,' the file was sent automatically to others on that person's distribution list so it just proliferated," Nardin explained.

The file went through the system, growing until it had produced "an excess volume of network traffic," she said, "which slowed delivery of electronic mail."

After IBM officials became aware of the problem, they were able that same day to trap the file and stop its propagation. Employees were alerted and told to delete the file when it was sent to them. Meanwhile, IBM officials developed a program which removed the file from the system.

IBM traced the virus-infected file "to a source outside of IBM in West Germany," Nardin said. "That source had authorization to send electronic mail to users in our internal network. But I can't get into specifics."

Damage Was Limited

In the end, the virus affected "major IBM installations all over the United States," Nardin confirmed. But the damage was limited to the electronic-mail network. "It was an inconvenience, really," she said.

A computer virus is nothing more than a program--the instructions that tell a computer which functions to perform. But a computer virus differs from ordinary programs in one key aspect: It can reproduce itself.

In this way the computer virus is aptly named. By copying itself and attaching to innocent-looking programs, it can rapidly spread from one set of software or a floppy disk to another, usually through an electronic network. In malicious hands, it can do enormous damage long before it is detected.

"The thing that makes it a virus is infection," Cohen explained. "When you run my program, your program becomes corrupt. When somebody runs your program, his program becomes corrupt. And so it goes."

Like all computer programs, viruses can be constructed to do either good or evil. What concerns many experts, however, is that a virus could be inserted in a sensitive program by a prankster or disgruntled employee and wreak havoc. Hospital records could be destroyed, the air-traffic-control system confused, utilities shut down, manufacturing specifications flawed or even defense missile systems confounded.

In the hands of a terrorist, viruses could become dangerous tools. One national expert claims that he witnessed a test in which an international airport was shut down 13 minutes after a virus was introduced into the computer network.

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