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Computer Virus Poised To Strike Friday; ‘Safe Computing’ Urged With AM-Michelangelo Virus-Box

March 3, 1992 GMT

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) _ A potentially disastrous virus dubbed Michelangelo is set to trigger millions of computer crashes this week. But experts said Monday that practicing safe computing can protect machines’ memories.

The virus, named for the Italian Renaissance painter and sculptor, lies dormant in an estimated 5 million IBM-compatible personal computers worldwide, poised to erase hard disks on Friday - the artist’s birthdate.

″This is one of the most widespread viruses,″ said John McAfee, president of McAfee Associates, an anti-virus computer consulting firm in Santa Clara. ″It’s out there in a large way and could cause lots of damage if it isn’t stopped.″

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Dataquest Inc., a market research company in San Jose, said its survey of 300 major businesses showed the Michelangelo infection rate rose from 5.5 percent at the end of 1991 to 18.2 percent at the end of January.

The Michelangelo strain first appeared in Scandinavia in February 1991. Tracking the virus to its source is virtually impossible, McAfee and others said.

Companies like McAfee’s, which make software programs that detect and eradicate computer viruses, can hardly keep up with requests to wipe out the virus.

″The phone has been ringing off the hook,″ said Sally Winship, spokeswoman for Microcom of Norwood, Mass., another maker of anti-viral programs. ″People are really getting nervous, and for good reason.″

Like biological viruses, Michelangelo is spread through contact - when a computer uses an infected floppy disk to ″boot,″ or start up. Some spread through modems or networks. Once in the machine, the virus can move to every disk used.

Preventing such a virus is much like practicing safe sex to avoid human disease: mainly by avoiding computer contact with disks of unknown origin.

Martin Tibor of Synapse Data Recovery in San Rafael said thousands of personal computers are infected, from small and large companies to government installations.

″Ninety-nine percent of the people who get affected by a virus keep quiet because they think it looks like their procedures are loose, or maybe like they pirated some software,″ Tibor said. ″But it’s widespread.″

Infected computers turned up at an AIDS research lab in the San Francisco area, the San Jose Mercury News and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

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Leading Edge Products Inc. of Westboro, Mass., shipped several hundred Michelangelo-loaded computers in January.

The federal Sandia Labs nuclear facility in Albuquerque, N.M., discovered a few infected computers using an anti-viral program.

The Michelangelo virus is more widespread and potentially destructive than previous large virus strains called the Columbus Day, Jerusalem, Friday the 13th and Stoned viruses, all triggered by dates.

″Most viruses tend to fizzle,″ said Ed Foster, editor of InfoWorld, a computer trade magazine based in San Mateo. ″Most of the time, viruses are more hype than danger. But I think the Michelangelo might cause problems.″

Most viruses are written by computer ″hackers,″ or programmers who want attention, and are relatively harmless, the experts say.

One virus, for example, knocks letters off the screen. Another causes a tiny ambulance - lights flashing and sirens wailing - to drive across the bottom of computer screens, she said.

″We know of more than 1,000 viruses out there,″ said Karen Garrison of Central Point Software in Beaverton, Ore. ″And there are more and more written every day. Some people are just trying to be clever. But most of it’s just simple vandalism.″