Technology: Invasion of the Data Snatchers

A "virus" epidemic strikes terror in the computer world

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The alarm caused by the appearance of these three viruses was amplified by two groups with a vested interest in making the threat sound as dramatic as possible. On one side are the computer-security specialists, a small group of consultants who make $100 an hour or more by telling corporate computer users how to protect their machines from catastrophic failure. On the other is the computer press, a collection of highly competitive weekly tabloids that have seized on the story like pit bulls, covering every outbreak with breathless copy and splashy headlines.

Meanwhile, entrepreneurs eager to profit from the epidemic have rushed to market with all sorts of programs designed to protect against viruses. In , advertising that frightens more than it informs, they flog products with names like Flu Shot +, Vaccinate, Data Physician, Disk Defender, Antidote, Virus RX, Viru-Safe and Retro-V. "Do computer viruses really exist? You bet they do!" screams a press release for Disk Watcher 2.0, a product that supposedly prevents virus attacks. Another program, VirALARM, boasts a telling feature: it instructs an IBM PC's internal speaker to alert users to the presence of a viral intruder with a wail that sounds like a police siren.

Comparisons with germ warfare and sexually transmitted diseases were perhaps inevitable. A virus that struck Lehigh University quickly got tagged "PC AIDS." That analogy is both overstated and insensitive, but it stems from a real concern that the computer revolution, like the sexual revolution, is threatened by viruses. At Apple, a company hit by at least three different viral strains, employees have been issued memos spelling out "safe computing practices" and reminded, as Product Manager Michael Holm puts it, "If you get a floppy disk from someone, remember that it's been in everybody else's computer too."

The publicity has triggered a certain amount of hysteria. Systems managers have imposed elaborate quarantines on their companies' machines. Computer columnists have advised readers to put their PCs under lock and key and, in one radical proposal, to disconnect their machines permanently from all data networks and telephone lines. Data-processing managers have rushed to stock up on antiviral programs. "We're seeing panic buying by those who have already been hit," says William Agne, president of ComNetco, which publishes Viru- Safe. When a virus showed up at the University of Delaware, the assistant manager of academic computing services immediately bought six different pieces of antiviral software. Then she began screening every floppy disk on campus -- some 3,000 in all.

In some cases, the threat of a virus is enough to spread panic. When scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab were warned by a Government security center last May that a virus lurking in the lab's 450 computers was set to be activated that day, many users stopped work and began feverishly making backup copies of all their disks. The warning of a virus proved to be a hoax, but in such an atmosphere, says Chuck Cole, Livermore's deputy computer- security manager, "a hoax can be as disruptive as the real thing."

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