Magazine article Management Today

How to Avoid a Nasty Cold

Magazine article Management Today

How to Avoid a Nasty Cold

Article excerpt


Friday the 13th is traditionally associated with bad luck. In January, when the 13th last fell on a Friday, a particularly nasty strain of virus dished out its own dose of bad luck, striking down several businesses and at least one university in Britain. Its target was not people but computers. The badluck bug infected hundreds of machines. The 1813 virus, as it is called, is the latest in a series of viruses--self-replicating pieces of computer code designed to infiltrate a computer and disrupt the machine, usually by corrupting or eating up its memory.

Until now most viruses have been relatively benign, and at worst a rather childish annoyance for their hosts. But these uninvited guests will become more and more widespread over the next year or so, particularly those which attack personal computers. As businesses, large and small, place more faith in their computer systems, they will also be forced to protect themselves from the wiles of the computer virus. Virus hunters estimate that the number of infected sites will very soon be doubling every six to 12 months. The academic world and the City, where people often pass data around via shared disks, are most vulnerable.

In November last year the security forces in America were given an alarming lesson in the potential of the computer virus, when a uniquely complex example invaded Internet, one of the largest networks of computer in the world. This virus was unusual in a number of ways. Its designer wrote it to attack machines more powerful than personal computers.

Minicomputers and mainframes are more difficult to break into than personal computers because they have security safeguards written into their operating software. Also, more importantly, fewer people have physical access to these computers, and they do not use floppy disks, the main carriers of computer viruses.

This virus destroyed no files, but spread rapidly via a weak spot in the network's electronic mail system and clogged the computers with useless information. It worked like a chain letter; each infected computer sent copies of the virus to a numver of other computers on the network. These included machines belonging to NASA institutes, the Department of Defense and several universities.

The Internet virus should more correctly be referred to as a `worm', because unlike true `viruses' it replicated itself without damaging computer files. It contained about 50,000 bytes of program code, and although it would have taken several months to write, was spotted fairly quickly because it copied itself onto computers over and over again, so slowing them down quite significantly.

This particular viral attack cost tens of millions of dollars to put right, and was far more serious than any of the strains which lurk in computers in Britain. Most of these can be avoided by following some simple rules of computing hygiene. Alan Solomon, one of the world's most persistent virus-hunters, says it is important that people learn from the 1813 attack, and adopt safe methods of computing to ensure that their floppy disks remain free from infection - both the 5.25 and 3.50 inch versions can act as carriers. `What we need is the equivalent of a public health campaign, just as you would deal with an outbreak of cholera. Either everybody is safe, or nobody is.'

Solomon runs Britain's only data recovery service, and he heard from about a dozen companies and two educational establishments which switched on their computers, on the fated 13th, to find 1813 had attacked them. …

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