Technology: Invasion of the Data Snatchers

A "virus" epidemic strikes terror in the computer world

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So far, real disaster has been avoided. No killer virus has penetrated the country's electronic funds-transfer system, which is essential to the operation of the nation's banks. No stock- or commodity-exchange computer centers have crashed. No insurance-company rolls have been wiped out. No pension funds have had their records scrambled. No air-traffic-control systems have ground to a halt. And the U.S. military-defense system remains largely uncompromised, although there have been published reports of virus attacks at both the FBI and the CIA.

But most experts warn that the worst is yet to come. "The viruses we've seen so far are child's play," says Donn Parker, a computer-crime expert at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif. Parker fears that the same viruses that are inconveniencing personal-computer users today could, through the myriad links and entry points that connect large networks, eventually threaten the country's most vital computer systems. Agrees Harold Highland, editor of Computers & Security magazine: "We ain't seen nothing yet."

At last count, more than 25 different viral strains had been isolated, and new ones are emerging nearly every week. Some are relatively benign, like the virus spread through the CompuServe network that causes machines equipped with voice synthesizers to intone the words "Don't panic." Others are more of a nuisance, causing temporary malfunctions or making it difficult to run isolated programs. But some seem bent on destroying valuable data. "Your worst fear has come true," wrote a computer buff in a report he posted on an electronic bulletin board to warn other users about a new Macintosh virus. "Don't share disks. Don't copy software. Don't let anyone touch your machine. Just say no."

Who are the perpetrators of this mischief? At first glance they seem an odd and varied lot. The Pakistani brothers are self-taught programmers isolated from the rest of the computer community. Two viruses exported to the U.S. from West Germany, by contrast, were bred in academia and spread by students. Other outbreaks seem to have come directly out of Silicon Valley. Rumor has it that the SCORES virus was written by a disgruntled Apple employee.

But some observers see an emerging pattern: the virus writers tend to be men in their late teens or early 20s who have spent an inordinate portion of their youth bathed in the glow of a computer screen. Scientific American Columnist A.K. Dewdney, who published the first article on computer viruses, describes what he calls a "nerd syndrome" common among students of science and technology. Says Dewdney: "They live in a very protected world, both socially and emotionally. They leave school and carry with them their prankish bent."

Thomas Lunzer, a consultant at SRI, believes the proliferation of microcomputers in schools and homes has exacerbated the problem. A powerful technology became widely available without the development of a code of ethics to keep that power in check. "We're harvesting our first crop of a computer- literate generation," says Lunzer. "The social responsibility hasn't caught up with them."

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