Technology: Invasion of the Data Snatchers

A "virus" epidemic strikes terror in the computer world

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What is clear, however, is that a once rare electronic "disease" has suddenly reached epidemic proportions. Across the U.S., it is disrupting operations, destroying data and raising disturbing questions about the vulnerability of information systems everywhere. Forty years after the dawn of & the computer era, when society has become dependent on high-speed information processing for everything from corner cash machines to military-defense systems, the computer world is being threatened by an enemy from within.

Last week in Fort Worth, a jury heard evidence in what prosecutors describe as the epidemic's first criminal trial. A 40-year-old programmer named Donald Gene Burleson is accused of infecting a former employer's computer with a virus-like program that deleted more than 168,000 records of sales commissions. Burleson says he is innocent, but he was ordered to pay his former employer $12,000 in a civil case based on similar charges. If convicted, he could face ten years in prison.

A virus, whether biological or electronic, is basically an information disorder. Biological viruses are tiny scraps of genetic code -- DNA or RNA -- that can take over the machinery of a living cell and trick it into making thousands of flawless replicas of the original virus. Like its biological counterpart, a computer virus carries in its instructional code the recipe for making perfect copies of itself. Lodged in a host computer, the typical virus takes temporary control of the computer's disk operating system. Then, whenever the infected computer comes in contact with an uninfected piece of software, a fresh copy of the virus passes into the new program. Thus the infection can be spread from computer to computer by unsuspecting users who either swap disks or send programs to one another over telephone lines. In today's computer culture, in which everybody from video gamesters to businessmen trades computer disks like baseball cards, the potential for widespread contagion is enormous.

Since viruses can travel from one place to another as fast as a phone call, a single strain can quickly turn up in computers hundreds of miles apart. The infection that struck Froma Joselow hit more than 100 other disks at the Journal-Bulletin as well as an estimated 100,000 IBM PC disks across the U.S. -- including some 10,000 at George Washington University alone. Another virus, called SCORES for the name of the bogus computer file it creates, first appeared in Apple Macintosh computers owned by Dallas-based EDS, the giant computer-services organization. But it spread rapidly to such firms as Boeing and Arco, and has since turned up in computers at NASA, the IRS and the U.S. House of Representatives.

Many of America's 3,000 electronic bulletin-board systems have suffered some kind of infection, as have hundreds of users groups and thousands of businesses. "It is the topic of conversation within the computing society," says John McAfee, head of InterPath, a computer firm in Santa Clara, Calif.

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