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Computers Disinfected Against Rogue Program; Threat is Downplayed With AM-Michelangelo-Other

March 6, 1992 GMT

Computers Disinfected Against Rogue Program; Threat is Downplayed With AM-Michelangelo-Other Bugs

NEW YORK (AP) _ Computer users took precautions to disinfect their machines from a virus set to strike on Michelangelo’s birthday Friday, although some experts didn’t expect widespread damage from the electronic prank.

There were several reports the virus struck a day early.

The rogue program, found in machines built to the IBM standard, will be triggered on March 6, the 517th anniversary of the birth of the Renaissance artist. If unchecked, it can destroy all the information in a machine.

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The National Computer Security Association estimates no more than 20,000 computers - about one in 2,500 of all the personal computers in the United States - could be damaged if no precautions are taken. John McAfee of the Computer Virus Industry Association estimated 5 million machines may have it worldwide.

″It has been overhyped, without question,″ said Charles Rutstein, staff researcher for the Washington, D.C.-based NCSA. ″There is going to be some data lost. But for the most part, it’s not a terrific problem as far as the world is concerned.

″The media has swarmed all over it. But for the average user, it’s just a nuisance,″ Rutstein said. ″Of course, even if 10 machines bite the dust, that’s a lot of data.″

The troubled Wall Street firm Drexel Burnham Lambert reported Thursday that two of its machines were struck by the virus a day early, apparently due to internal clocks that didn’t take the leap year into account. But the company had made a backup copy of the data on the computers as a precaution.

In Montevideo, Uruguay, the newspaper La Republica, quoting sources it didn’t name, reported Thursday that Michelangelo has wiped out counterintelligence information on the Uruguayan Army’s computers. A military spokesman denied the report, which said the files contained data on labor unions and political parties.

In East St. Louis, Ill., the virus apparently wiped out the memory in six computers at Southern Illinois University on Thursday, campus assistant director Emmet Beetner said. He said the computers don’t have internal calendars, but someone might have punched the March 6 date in. He said it will cost about $100 per computer to restore the lost data.

The NCSA expects more computers to be stricken on Friday, March 13, but by various strains of the Friday the 13th virus.

The Michelangelo virus is a wicked strain because it can wipe out all the information in a computer.

First discovered in Europe last year, it has been found in the United States in Leading Edge Products Inc., the Palisades nuclear plant of the Consumers Power Co. in Michigan, the U.S. Agriculture Department, a few machines in the House of Representatives, and the newspaper San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News, among others. It also has appeared in the computer systems of at least five Japanese companies.

The last time a virus generated such a scare was Oct. 13, 1989. The NCSA said it documented only two cases of the Datacrime or Columbus Day virus. There are more than 1,000 known viruses.

A computer virus is the electronic equivalent of a biological bug. These malicious invaders sneak into a computer system aboard infected discs or in sabotaged programs copied from electronic bulletin boards.

″(Michelangelo) has to be taken seriously, but we don’t think it’s going to be widespread,″ said Ray Fleming of the computer and research office of the National Institutes of Health. ″We’re taking precautions.″

A generic NCSA profile of the mischief-makers who create viruses is a white male, age 17 to 28, who is clever but most likely an underachiever, very adept at programming but trying to prove something or get attention.

They have been compared to people who pull sick practical jokes, paint graffiti on walls or call in bomb threats.

″Some (viruses) are playful. You’ll see a fish swim across your screen or a smiley face. It’s ‘Ha, ha, we gotcha,’ ″ said Carol Sizer of the Whirlpool Corp. in Benton Harbor, Mich. ″But the Michelangelo virus is destructive. It’s like driving your car across someone’s lawn.″

FBI chief William Sessions issued a warning about the virus this week, pointing out it is a federal crime to destroy data in government computers.

But not everybody is taking the virus too seriously.

″The big problem in Washington today is not a computer virus called Michelangelo but rather a spending virus called deficit,″ said Sid Taylor of the gadfly group the National Taxpayers Union. ″In this case, the software malfunction is in the White House and the Congress.″