Technology: Invasion of the Data Snatchers

A "virus" epidemic strikes terror in the computer world

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In the past, companies that were hit by a virus generally kept it quiet. But the computer-sabotage trial in Fort Worth may be a sign that things are changing. Texas is one of 48 states that have passed new laws against computer mischief, and four years ago President Reagan signed a federal law that spelled out harsh penalties for unauthorized tampering with Government computer data. But most statutes were written before viruses surfaced as a major problem, and none mention them by name. In May an organization of programmers called the Software Development Council met in Atlanta to launch a movement to plug that loophole in the law. Declares Michael Odawa, president of the council: "I say, release a virus, go to jail."

Some computer users are not waiting for legal protection. Don Brown, a Macintosh enthusiast from Des Moines, responded to the Peace virus outbreak by writing an antiviral program and giving it away. Brown's Vaccine 1.0 is available free on most national computer networks, including CompuServe, the Source and GEnie. InterPath's McAfee fights viruses from a 27-ft. mobile home known as the Bugbuster. Carrying up to six different computers with him, he pays house calls on local firms and colleges that have been infected, dispensing advice and vaccines and, like a good epidemiologist, taking samples of each strain of virus. Lately he has been averaging more than 30 calls a day. Says he: "You're always trying to stay one step ahead or as close behind as possible."

Like a biological vaccination, a vaccine program is a preventive measure -- an attempt to protect an uninfected disk from invasion by an uninvited program. Most software vaccines take advantage of the fact that computer viruses usually hide themselves in one of a few locations within the machine's control software. A typical vaccine will surround those memory locations with the equivalent of a burglar alarm. If something tries to alter the contents of one of those cells, the vaccine program is supposed to stop everything and alert the operator. But because there are so many different viral strains out there, vaccines are often ineffective.

Once a computer has been hit by a virus, the invader can sometimes be eradicated by a special program that searches out and erases each bit of foreign material. Generally, however, the simplest way to bring an infected computer back to health is to shut it down, purge its memory and all its disks, and rebuild its files from scratch. Programs should be loaded from the original manufacturer's copy, and new disks should be carefully screened for the presence of an unwanted intruder. There are any number of products that will do this, usually by searching for files that are suspiciously long and may be harboring a virus.

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