Technology: Invasion of the Data Snatchers

A "virus" epidemic strikes terror in the computer world

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A case in point is Drew Davidson, a 23-year-old programmer from Tucson, who has achieved some notoriety as the author of the so-called Peace virus, which flashed an innocuous greeting on thousands of computer screens last spring. A study in self-contradiction, Davidson rails against those who would create malignant viruses, calling them "copycats" and "attention seekers." Yet he cheerfully admits that he created his virus at least in part to draw attention to his programming skills. "In the beginning, I didn't think it would have this kind of impact," he says. "I just thought we'd release it and it would be kind of neat."

On March 2, when several thousand Macintosh owners turned on their machines, they were greeted by a drawing of planet earth and a "universal message of peace" signed by Richard Brandow, a friend of Davidson's and the publisher of a Canadian computer magazine. The virus did no harm. It flashed its message on the screen and then erased its own instructions, disappearing without a trace.

But what made this virus special was how it spread. Brandow, who collaborated with Davidson in creating it, inserted the virus into game disks that were distributed at meetings of a Montreal Macintosh users group. A speaker at one meeting was a Chicago software executive named Marc Canter, whose company was doing some contract work for Aldus Corp., a Seattle-based software publisher. Canter innocently picked up a copy of the infected disk, tried it out on his office computer, and then proceeded, on the same machine, to review a piece of software being prepared for shipment to Aldus. Unaware that he had thereby passed on the hidden virus to the Aldus program, Canter sent an infected disk to Seattle. There the virus was unwittingly reproduced by Aldus employees, inserted in several thousand copies of a graphics program called Freehand, and shipped to computer stores around the country. It was the first known case of a virus spreading to a commercial software product.

The Peace virus capped a series of outbreaks that began last December, when a seemingly harmless Christmas greeting appeared mysteriously on terminals connected to a worldwide network owned and operated by IBM. Users who followed the instructions on the screen and typed the word Christmas inadvertently triggered a virus-like self-replicating mechanism, sending an identical copy of the original program to every name on their personal electronic mailing lists. In a matter of days, clones of the tiny program had multiplied in such profusion that they clogged the 350,000-terminal network like so many hairs in a bathtub drain.

Later that month, scientists at Jerusalem's Hebrew University reported that some of their desktop computers were growing lethargic, as if a hidden organism were sapping their strength. Once again, the problem was traced to a rapidly multiplying program that was consuming computer memory. This program carried something else as well. Within its instructional code was a "time bomb" linked to each computer's internal clock and set to go off on the second Friday in May -- Friday the 13th, the 40th anniversary of the State of Israel. Any machine still infected on that date would suffer the instant loss of all its files. Fortunately, the virus was eradicated well before May 13, and the day passed without incident.

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