- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 2, 2001

As if the 200 or so cold viruses that infect millions of people every year weren't enough, computer viruses have become just as common a national nuisance.

The biological and technological viruses work much the same way. They're infectious agents that spread from one system to the next through some form of interaction.

A cold virus spreads through human contact, such as hand-shaking or sneezing. A computer virus often spreads through a single click of the computer mouse, such as when you open an infected e-mail attachment.

In the recent past, computer viruses were spread when someone put a contaminated floppy disk into an uninfected machine. Floppy disks are not used as much anymore, but computer viruses — just like the persistent biological kind — have survived and found an even more efficient way to spread. The Internet allows computer viruses to become "airborne."

On Tuesday, many of the nation's computer users braced themselves for an attack of the Code Red worm, which is viruslike but can replicate itself without user interaction. It travels the Internet looking for vunerable computer systems and then installs a copy of itself and wreaks havoc. Protection against the worm is available in the form of a Microsoft computer patch that can be downloaded for free.

Last month, the Pentagon reported that some of its computers were infected with the worm. The Pentagon briefly closed down its Web site while installing protection against the worm.

As opposed to cold viruses, which often work themselves out after the victim has had several days of rest, computer viruses are so destructive they figuratively can shatter your computer software if you don't fight back. Some computer viruses can delete whole files and even damage your hard drive.

To prevent these malicious agents from infecting computers, Internet security specialists recommend that home users take several precautionary steps.

"The most effective way to prevent viruses is to use anti-virus software," says Vincent Weafer, director of the Symantec Antivirus Research Center in Santa Monica, Calif. The company also has a Rockville office.

Also, if the anti-virus software asks you to update, don't ignore the pop-up screen, he says. Always make sure the anti-virus software is up-to-date.

"And don't open e-mail attachments unless you know what it is," Mr. Weafer says. Most common e-mail viruses are found in attachments with .VBS and .EXE extensions.

Many viruses are executed when you click and open the attachment that is carrying the virus. In that instant, your entire computer can crash, meaning it can shut down, and you can lose stored information.

Some viruses run in the background without the computer user's knowledge, copying themselves to e-mail address books and replicating across the Internet, creating virtual epidemics.

As with any other type of protection to your property, personal responsibility is important. If you don't leave your doors to your house open, why would you leave the door to your computer — which may contain financial files and other personal information — wide open?

"All the protection in the world is not going to work as long as the user doesn't know their computer," says Jerry Brady, chief technology officer at the network security company Guardent, which has an office in Alexandria and is based in Waltham, Mass. Everyone has to take responsibility, Mr. Brady says.

Stanley Senders owns Computer Accessories, a computer repair and accessories store in Northwest. He says he thinks computer users have become more responsible because he doesn't see as many virus-wrecked machines anymore.

"It's not as prevalent as it used to be," Mr. Senders says. "About 20 percent of our customers come in with that problem. It used to be 50 percent."

The number of computer viruses, on the other hand, has grown from a few hundred almost two decades ago to close to 55,000, a number that keeps increasing, Mr. Weafer says.

The traditional virus creator is a tech-savvy teen-age male, but the demographics have changed, Mr. Weafer says. While the 14- to 23-year-old young males are still the most common, women and men of all ages have entered the world of computer destruction, he says.

Transmitting viruses and retrieving other proprietary records is illegal and carries fines and possible prison time. If someone is discovered retrieving secret information from the federal government about foreign relations or national defense, he or she can get up to 10 years imprisonment.

The FBI sees Internet crimes as one of its most critical challenges and urges cooperation between the private sector and law enforcement, Thomas T. Kubic, an FBI spokesman, said at a congressional committee hearing on Internet fraud crime a couple of months ago.

Computer hackers often get information about the latest malicious code technology in chat rooms. They trade technology secrets the way previous generations traded baseball cards, Mr. Brady says.

"I would argue that the underground community is better at sharing than the security community," he says.

Viruses have been used lately to market Internet sites, particularly pornographic and online gambling Web sites. These viruses put a link on the computer user's desktop or modifies the browser — such as Netscape or Microsoft Internet Explorer — so you go unintentionally into the site. This is called "viral marketing."

As is true with traditional weapons manufacturers who continue to make more and more powerful and effective weapons, virus writers create increasingly advanced malicious codes, combining viruses with other "weapons."

"The virus world has changed a lot in the last few years," Mr. Brady says. "There are no neat categories anymore."

Viruses are not alone. Among the latest weapons in computer warfare are mobile codes. Once a hacker — a computer programmer who knows how to exploit security holes — gets into someone else's computer with the mobile code, he or she can use that computer as if it were his or her own.

"A kid with a little imagination can make a pretty sophisticated attack," Mr. Brady says.

Damage done by viruses to U.S. companies last year cost more than $45 million, according to the San-Francisco-based Computer Security Institute, an association for information-security professionals. CSI's latest report about soaring cyber-crime costs was conducted with the participation of the San Francisco FBI Computer Intrusion Squad.

With high-speed Internet connections, you are exposed to the Internet 24-seven, and you may want to install what is called fire-wall software that monitors all Internet connections to and from your computer. The fire-wall software also alerts you to any attempted intrusions and prevents data from being sent from your computer to the Internet without your knowledge.

"The fire wall puts itself between you and rest of the Internet. It filters the traffic and hides us so people can't get direct access to us," Mr. Weafer says.

In addition to updating anti-virus programs and installing a fire wall, making sure you know the source of e-mail attachments is important, as is downloading information only from sources and sites with which you are familiar, say the computer security specialists.

As with any property protection, you want your property to be at least as secure as your neighbors' — even more secure if possible. A burglar is apt to try to break into the least secure house on your street. The same thing goes for your computer.

"You want to make sure that your machine is more secure than others," Mr. Weafer says.

Even if the private sector and law enforcement work day and night to fight computer crime and computer users diligently update their virus protection, viruses and other malicious codes are here to stay, Mr. Weafer predicts.

"Computer viruses will be around as long as people with malicious intent are around," he says.

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